1 Corinthians 1-4
Purpose: Paul’s intent in writing to the Corinthian church was to expose evil that persistently threatened to destroy true Christianity. The Gospel was applied to a host of issues, including immorality, marriage and adultery, intellectualism, public worship, and spiritual gifts.
Author: Paul the Apostle
Date Written: About A.D. 55
Setting: Corinth was a large seaport city in southern Greece, and a major trade center. Its people were immoral and full of idolatry. The Christian church there was primarily made up of Gentiles.
Key People: Paul, Timothy, members of Chloe’s household
Corinth was one of the most prosperous Greek cities in Paul’s time. It was known for its decadence and wickedness to the extent that a Greek verb Corinthianize meant “to practice sexual immorality; to debauch.” Its geographical location made it easy for all manner of religions and cults to integrate into the Corinthian society, and the Apostle Paul saw this cross-section of life as a great evangelistic opportunity; he and his contemporaries planted a church in the wicked environment. While there were some Jewish believers in the church, it was made up mostly of Gentiles who had left their pagan lives to follow Christ. Paul would later find it necessary to remind the saints there of their deliverance from sinful behaviors and customs, and to encourage them in the Gospel.
After Paul left Corinth, many problems surfaced, and division spread among the believers. Soon, reports of these problems came to Paul, and a delegation of Corinthians brought a letter from the church requesting his guidance on a number of issues. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was a response to those questions.
Paul began his letter by addressing their need for unity. Various church members had become more attached to certain leaders than to Christ, so Paul reminded his readers that the Cross of Jesus Christ must be the foundation of His Church. The Corinthians needed to be careful to keep their focus on Jesus.
The preaching of the Cross of Jesus will not be acceptable to the expectations of the unconverted mind. This is true for every generation and society. Paul focused on two groups of people, the Jews and the Greeks (Gentiles), and indicated that the Cross was “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Jews’ expected that their Messiah would be the one who would deliver them from the Roman government. They looked for a deliverer who would restore David’s throne and bring glory back to Israel as a nation. They also expected the Messiah to be accompanied by marvelous signs and wonders. Thus, they looked for direct evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, not just another great rabbi. Jesus’ execution as a common criminal on a cross dashed their hopes of both political restoration and miraculous evidence.
Additionally, the Jews held to the Old Testament idea that God blessed with material prosperity those with whom He was pleased, and sent judgment, such as illness and death, to those who disobeyed His laws. Only those who were cursed of God were crucified (Deuteronomy 21:23). Crucifixion was such a horrible and shameful death that it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen. This instrument of execution was not discussed in polite conversation. Therefore, to preach that such a criminal was the Messiah was a great stumbling block, despite prophecies such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 which indicated the Savior would die just such a death.
The Greeks desired intellectual achievements. Their focus was on logic and rational evidence. They did not believe in bodily resurrection and, therefore, considered death to be the ultimate defeat. A savior dying on a cross—the instrument of death reserved for murderers—was even more ridiculous. They saw such a savior as weak compared to their mythological gods.
Corinth was filled with philosophers and teachers who gained followers through eloquent speech and wisdom acquired through intellectual exercises. In order to keep worldly knowledge subordinate to the Gospel, Paul chose to preach only “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) to the Corinthians, although considering his Gamalielite education, he was no doubt capable of brilliant speech and argument. Paul realized that nothing but the direction of the Spirit and the power of God could convince anyone of the reality of the Cross and its meaning to mankind. He suppressed his natural abilities and gifts in order to be certain the Spirit of God was leading in his ministry. He wanted people to follow God and His message, not the messenger, as there would always be someone who could argue more eloquently to turn hearts away from the Gospel. In order for God’s power to work, he knew his words had to be guided by the Spirit.
Those Spirit-directed words, then, had to be received by the spiritual man (see verses 9 and 10). The Gospel is not understood with intellect or human wisdom. The natural man, guided by logic and emotions, cannot understand spiritual things. In the natural, the Cross is foolishness. Similarly, the carnal man, guided by bodily appetites, cannot understand the spiritual. One cannot receive the message of the Cross in its entirety if distracted and focused on physical appetites. The spiritual man, however, who has experienced God’s revelation, can learn and grow as the Spirit guides him. Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to focus on such learning and growth.
Chapters 3 and 4 are Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian brethren to put aside frivolous differences. Some factions within the church seemingly enjoyed Paul’s simple approach to preaching the Gospel, while others preferred a more philosophical approach. Some believed that liberty in Christ meant freedom from the Jewish customs regarding food, while others felt that all these rules must be followed strictly.
The influences of society had made their way into the church, and were contradictory to Paul’s message. Greek architecture was a source of pride for many of these people, and Paul chose the building analogy to demonstrate the need for the various strengths and gifts within the Corinthian body to complete the Gospel structure.
The Corinthians also saw debate as a means to test and stretch the intellect. Paul warned them about such practices by telling them in verse 19 of chapter 3, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” Paul recognized the danger of becoming vain and full of self. In light of Paul’s teaching of “dying daily,” the Corinthian believers needed to be careful about exalting each other or themselves in their own wisdom.
Focus Verse: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Several years ago, I visited two small churches near Mexicali, Mexico. In addition to organizing Bible school activities for the children of the barrio where one church was located and building an addition to their church building, the group I was with had the opportunity to worship with both congregations. At each service, we heard Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” and we found that it was true! We visitors were very different from our hosts. We spoke different languages, wore contrasting styles of clothes, ate dissimilar foods, and lived in opposite circumstances. Yet, none of these things mattered to us. We were all “brethren” in Jesus Christ. Our focus was on Him. As we worshiped Him, the Holy Spirit was with us. We were one congregation praising our God together.
A few months later, a visiting minister came to our church in Los Angeles, California. He, too, read that verse in Psalms. Once again, we felt the Holy Spirit working among us, and our hearts were unified. As the service came to an end and the Holy Spirit drew us, we flocked to the altars of prayer. Before we knew what had happened, three or four hours had passed, and we were still grouped around the altar benches and sitting in the front pews of the sanctuary. None of us wanted to leave! Instead, after we had finished praying, people began to testify of the wonderful things God was doing in their lives. Between testimonies we would sing. The singing brought praise. Then we would start to pray, and the cycle would begin again. Because there were no divisions among us, God had liberty to work in our hearts and lives. All who were there felt His sweet and wonderful Spirit.
The common thread in both of these experiences was the unity among those who had gathered to worship Jesus. Diversities of race, nationality, age, language, or socioeconomic status, did not hinder our worship. We knew that before the Throne of God we were all equal. Our love for Jesus Christ created a bond between us that could not be broken by earthly differences. As we looked to Jesus, the Holy Spirit had the freedom to work among us, changing us into His likeness and bringing our lives into the center of His will.
Once I became aware of God’s desire for us to be unified, and of the way He moves among us when we are unified, I began to be more conscious of my own attitudes when attending church. Now when I go to pray, I check myself. Am I in one accord with the brothers and sisters around me? Is my heart where God would have it to be? Am I doing anything in my life that might cause strife? I listen to the Spirit’s voice, and make changes as He shows them to me. Sometimes at the altar, I hear others praying near me, and I find myself agreeing with their prayers. I begin to pray along with them, and I feel God’s presence in a special way. When I am bound in unity to God and to fellow Christians, my life becomes a tool that God can use, and He causes me and the people around me to grow in Him.
Paul wanted this same kind of unity to exist in the church at Corinth. He knew that they needed to overcome their differences and put their focus on God.