1 Corinthians 1-4: Reader’s Notes

Posted on 27 March 2008

Readers’ notes for 1 Corinthians 1-4

1 Corinthians Chapters 1-4

Sermon Notes by Stephen Dray, Ferndale Baptist Church

 
1 Corinthians 1:1-3: Welcome to Corinth
1 Corinthians 1:4-9: The church God blesses
1 Corinthians 1:10-17: The danger of divisions
1 Corinthians 1:18-25: The foolishness of the cross
1 Corinthians 1:26-31: The foolishness of God’s people
1 Corinthians 2:1-5: The foolishness of the preacher
1 Corinthians 2:6-10a: The riches believers share
1 Corinthians 2:10b-16: Wisdom from the Spirit
1 Corinthians 3:1-4: Spirituality into division won’t go
1 Corinthians 3:5-9: Only servants
1 Corinthians 3:10-16: Building with care
1 Corinthians 3:17-23: Christ the head and source of all things
1 Corinthians 4:1-5: Answerable to God
1 Corinthians 4:6-13: Authentic Christian ministry
1 Corinthians 4:14-21: Remember whose children you are!
1 Corinthians 1:1-3: Welcome to Corinth
Paul uses his apostolic authority to try and re-unite the divided fellowship in Corinth.
In the New Testament the word ‘apostle’ refers either to missionaries, church messengers or those whom Jesus entrusted with the teaching of authentic Christianity. In this last sense it is only ever used of the eleven disciples of Jesus and of Paul himself (and of Matthias in Acts 1:26). This is how Paul uses the word here.

This is important. Among the Corinthians were those who claimed special authority in the church and were twisting the gospel message. Paul insists upon his own authority and reminds his readers of his unique call by God. They would have all been familiar with his testimony (see Acts 9, especially verse 15) as the missionary and founder of Christianity in the non-Jewish world. He also reminds them that the whole of his ministry is determined by the will of God. Thus he rebukes those who would set themselves up over and against the calling and will of the Lord Jesus.

Two thousand years later, we still have the apostolic ministry, for what they taught was written down and has been preserved in the writings of the New Testament. Wherever those writings are read and faithfully explained, the apostolic ministry is found today.

Paul visited Corinth on his second missionary journey, about AD 50, spending about eighteen months there and lodging with two Jewish believers, Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, who had been exiled (with all other Jews) from Rome by the emperor Claudius. Paul began a programme of evangelism in the synagogue, but the Jews opposed him so he had concentrated his activities upon the rest of the population in the city: the ‘Gentiles’. His base was Titius Justus’ home. Many were converted to the Christian faith and a church established. Yet the period was not without its difficulties; on one occasion Paul had been brought before the city ruler, the proconsul Gallio. We read about this in Acts 18.
After leaving Corinth, Paul does not appear to have had much to do with the church. However, on his third missionary journey about AD 52-55, while at Ephesus, contact was re-established. Unfortunately the news was not good, for the church seemed to be tolerating immorality among its members. This prompted him to write a letter to the church rebuking them (5:9) but it was misunderstood (5:10, 11). This had been reported back to Paul who, at the same time, had been informed by members of the household of Chloe of further disorders (1:11). Apparently, he had also received a delegation from the church that was led by Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus who had brought a letter with a number of questions upon which the church sought answers (16:17; 7:1). The result of this was 1 Corinthians, a letter that gives us a more intimate glimpse into one of the early churches than any of the other New Testament writings.
Just as today there is a standard way in addressing a letter, so there was in Paul’s time. Verses 1-3 follow that pattern by giving the name of the senders (1), the addressees (2) and offering a brief greeting (3). Yet, these early verses reflect both Paul’s problems with the Corinthian congregation and, also, indicate the high hopes he had for them. We see this immediately with his appeal to his apostleship.
Sosthenes joined Paul in his greeting. A Sosthenes is mentioned in Acts 18:17. He was a ruler of the Corinthian synagogue who was beaten before Gallio because he sympathized with Paul. It is tempting to assume that this same man was now Paul’s assistant in Ephesus, especially since Sosthenes was not a very common name in those days. More important is his description as our brother, the characteristic way in which the early Christians addressed one another. Such was no mere formality: the distinctions that divided men and women and alienated them from one another were to have no place in the church. From what we shall later learn of the Corinthian church the use of the word ‘brother’ here was a necessary (if gentle) rebuke, because they were divided themselves.
Paul’s next words are probably a rebuke. He does not write to the ‘Corinthian Church’ but the church of God in Corinth. The Corinthians had forgotten whose they were and had divided into parties and showed little concern for the churches of God elsewhere. Paul calls for a unity based on a recognition of whose they are.
Paul adds, sanctified in Christ Jesus. ‘Sanctified’ means to be set apart by the offering of sacrifice. Paul’s point is that a Christian is a person who knows that he or she has been set apart for God because of the sacrifice Jesus made for sin upon the cross. This is the basis of unity.
Finally, Paul says, ‘called to be saints’. Those who are separated to God in Jesus are to live a life that reflects his own holiness; a lesson which the Corinthian church seemed to have long forgotten. The final words of verse 2 emphasize this: all who serve God everywhere receive the same calling from Jesus, there are no exceptions!
The early church quickly adopted two words almost as ‘passwords’: grace and peace. Grace points to the completely unmerited and undeserved character of all of God’s dealings with us. The Christian can never stand before God except for his mercy. He it was who loved us when we were unlovely and rebellious. He it was who became man in order to meet our need of forgiveness. He it was who gave us strength to believe and keeps us in his way. Peace describes the result of grace. It is the ending of God’s hostility to us and includes every blessing that is and will one day be ours as Christians.
Each comes to us from the Father as the source and the Lord Jesus Christ as the means or agent. By his death, he has secured such grace and peace to all who believe.
One of the remarkable features about these early verses is the number of times that Jesus is mentioned: ten times in ten verses! Why? Paul’s repeated emphasis upon Jesus is intended to remind the Corinthians that there is only one person who can resolve the sad situation that had developed among them.
Finally, we note that Paul had the highest possible view of Jesus. He is to be worshipped (‘called upon’: verse 2), something that the Bible forbids to any except God; he is given the divine title ‘Lord’ three times (2, 3) and he is described as equal to the Father (3). Jesus is God: nothing less is the Christian view of Jesus of Nazareth.
How significant that Paul should make such claims in this letter! Surely he calls both the Corinthians and all who read their correspondence to recognize that there is but one Lord in the church. Every personal prejudice and ambition is to be brought to his feet. It is he alone who is to rule us. He is the king. All are to listen and follow him.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9: The church God blesses!
The Corinthian church was in danger of forgetting the God who had blessed them.
In Paul’s day letters between those who shared the same religious beliefs normally opened with thanksgiving that hinted at what was to come. In all Paul’s letters the thanksgiving follows a similar pattern. He gives thanks

always

to God

on behalf of the Christians to whom he writes

because of the things God has done for them.
A gifted church
We can well understand Paul’s unending thankfulness to God for the church at Corinth. His preaching (‘the testimony of Jesus’: verse 6) had reaped a rich harvest. So had that of Apollos and others who had ministered in the city. The Holy Spirit had taken the message that the Corinthians had heard and had first convinced them of its truth and then changed their lives to prove it. A large and thriving church had been established and, for all its problems, was a remarkable testimony to the grace of God.
Further, the church was not only large but remarkably gifted (5, 7). Paul was grateful to God for the way he had so markedly granted to the church the resources they needed to attain maturity and to be preserved in their calling (7-9).
Yet one of the great failings of the Corinthian church was that many of its members considered that their giftedness reflected well on them, that in some way they had earned such blessings. In response, Paul reminds them that all they are and have is the result of the grace of God mediated to them in Christ Jesus: he alone is the object of boasting. When this is grasped boasting, pride and self-seeking can have no place.
Further the Christians at Corinth were forgetting that the Christian faith looks forward to the return of Jesus. They had become so preoccupied with their present riches that they had neglected their hope. The purpose of God’s gifting was, Paul says, to assist them to remain steadfast to the end. God was not going to let them down. Having first and graciously drawn them to faith (‘called’) through their fellowship with Jesus, he was not about to fail to bring his work to completion!
Encouragement for new believers
A newly converted Christian very soon finds that the way forward is full of hidden dangers. It is easy to become fearful and to ask the question, ‘Can I keep going as a believer?‘ Paul replies that this is the wrong thing to ask. Rather the question should be, ‘Can I rely on God?‘ The answer to this is clear-cut: God is faithful and will give all the necessary resources.
But, the questioner might ask, ‘How can I be sure?‘ Paul replies that the fact that anyone believes at all is evidence of the grace of God, and he does not go back on a work he has begun. More than that, however, the very transformation that results from believing the good news about Jesus is itself a tribute to the power of God that is at work. Finally, Paul points to all the resources that God has provided for his people that are designed to support and help the Christian. Such are the ground for confidence, but not in self, in God!
However, Paul observes that these resources are to be found within the church, not in individual believers on their own. Those who neglect to meet together invariably seem to shrivel up and deprive others of help too.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17: The danger of divisions
Corinthian slogans and quotations
The New Testament was written in Greek. In the first century this meant that it would have been written in capital letters and without punctuation. Usually this creates no difficulty since it is quite obvious what the original author intended to say; the agreement between different versions of the Bible shows that punctuation is rarely a significant fact in the interpretation of a passage in the New Testament.
Without punctuation, however, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the words are the author’s own or whether he is quoting from elsewhere.
In 1 Corinthians it is generally agreed that Paul not only refers to the letter that the church had sent him but sometimes quotes (not always with approval!) phrases from it. In addition, most agree that he sometimes uses their favourite slogan-words and quotes them back (again, not always with approval!).
Words like ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ were favoured slogan-words, as were ‘spirituals’ when referring to God’s gracious gifts. Paul often uses such slogans and tries to show how the Corinthians were in error in their understanding or emphasis upon such words and the ideas that lay behind them. Other possible examples include the deep things of God (2:10), everything is permissible (6:12; 10:23) and beyond what is written (4:6).
Later (from chapter 7 onwards, see 7:1), Paul seems sometimes to quote from the church’s letter: for example, 7:1 itself probably contains a quote: ‘It is good for a man not even to touch a woman’. Controversially, some argue that 14:33b-35 is a quote and does not reflect Paul’s view but that of his opponents!
Whatever opinions one adopts on the details, it seems that slogans are cited and quotations made in the letter. In a careful reading of the letter we have to be aware that this sometimes takes place.

It soon becomes clear that Paul is using two of the Corinthians’ own ‘catchwords’ in verse 5. In the first century secular world eloquence and knowledge were highly regarded and zealously sought. The church particularly cherished these as evidence of their spiritual standing. Paul is deeply sceptical! The Corinthian church was sadly divided. Paul expresses his great concern over the divisions in Corinth. He shows his readers what they must do to put the matter right.
The Corinthian fellowship was not a perfect church! Paul had heard from some of Chloe’s household that splits were emerging among the members (11). Chloe was probably an Ephesian merchant-woman who was well known, through trading links, with the fellowship at Corinth. Her household (slaves) may well have been Christians who met with the Corinthian church when in the city. Certainly, they knew Paul and his avid interest in the fellowship he had founded.
This information had not been relayed to Paul either in the letter the Corinthians had sent or by their delegation to him. Yet his reply shows that this matter was more important than everything else and so he tackles it first! Jesus taught that unity in love is to be the one fundamental feature of the lifestyle of believers (John 13:34, 35). Paul begins at precisely the same point. All the other matters are of no consequence alongside the need for love (see also chapter 13).
What divided the Corinthians?
Christians have discussed for centuries what lay at the heart of the divisions in Corinth but we simply do not know! Perhaps, this is significant. It seems clear that Paul, Peter and Apollos, though having very different gifts and personalities, were themselves united. Almost certainly the differences were the result of personality cults, preferences for one preacher over another, especially if one of these men had been the means of the believer’s conversion or baptism (14). Possibly, those who were influenced by the ‘wisdom’ teaching of the ancient world had come to see Apollos, a capable speaker from the most respected university town in the Mediterranean (Acts 18:24-28), as their champion.
Paul was a great pastor. Passionately he reminds his readers of the one great truth that they had so easily forgotten (10, 13). As believers in the Lord Jesus they were now brothers for whom Christ, not Paul or any other, had died. But, more than this, they were members of Christ’s living body, not severed parts of a corpse! They had one Lord, having, by baptism, signified that they had become his possession.
Sorting it out
For the Corinthians, certain steps were demanded. They were called to live in peace with one another (the meaning of agree with one another: verse 10). This is to be achieved by ending such dishonouring divisions.
Party spirit is to be brought to an end, something possible when believers have their hearts and wills united in a desire for peace. When love of peace goes together with considerable effort to achieve it marvels can be achieved! This is the apostle’s point when he calls for them to be united in mind and thought, not that they should agree on everything. Rather he aims at a unity that is more deep-seated and found in the heart of every believer. The same emphasis on effort and healing is found in his call to be perfectly united, a phrase which was sometimes used to mean knitting together fractured bones.
‘So’, says Paul, ‘what does it matter who baptized whom and whether the evangelist or teacher is eloquent or not?‘ (14-17).
1 Corinthians 1:18-25: The foolishness of the cross
Paul warns the Corinthians against an ever-present danger.
Paul’s reference to words of human wisdom (17) was deliberate. There were people in Corinth who were rejecting Paul and his message because of his lack of oratory. More than that, however, the Corinthians were in danger of being swamped by that culture and rejecting the very gospel itself.
A suffering God
At the heart of Greek beliefs about God was the conviction that he was without any feelings and totally distanced himself from human affairs. To preach a God who became a man and suffered, even to death, on a cross was unthinkable and quite horrifying. To such people the gospel was ‘foolishness’. However, it demonstrated the power of God since those who believed it discovered what Greek philosophers had long sought in vain (see Acts 17:32).
This came as no surprise to the apostle (19). The Old Testament Scriptures had long ago taught this! Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14, one of a series of scriptures that warned that it was folly to try to match wits with God. Then, Paul asks, ‘in the light of what God has done on the cross, where is your much vaunted wisdom?‘ (20). Just as God’s vindication of Isaiah overthrew all the strategies of the wise counsellors of his day, so the gospel confounds Paul’s modern counterparts (Isaiah 33:18), the philosopher (disputer) of the age. Such ‘wisdom’ is part of a sinful world order that is in decay.
The Greek world, for all its learning, had no real knowledge of God, not least because it saw no need of salvation from sin (21). However, those who were made conscious of their need and had welcomed the gospel had found what, for all its learning, the Greek world still groped after (22).
A crucified Messiah
Paul knew that this is always the story of men and women who start with themselves and try to find God. If the Greeks were in darkness so were the Jews. For them, however, there were two quite different problems. They had very clear ideas of what to expect from their Messiah: he would be a powerful political leader who would rescue them from the Roman emperor. He would major in the spectacular as, they believed, all God’s servants had always done! Secondly, the idea of a suffering Messiah who would die on a cross was inconceivable to them. ‘After all,‘ they reasoned, ‘Moses’ law teaches that the person who is hanged is under the curse of God’ (23: see Deuteronomy 21:23). The Christian message thus offered a totally impossible view of God to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Paul notes, however, that those who put their faith in the crucified Messiah find new life and also the power to lead it (24). Even God’s ‘poorest shot’ condemns the most elevated thoughts of unbelieving men to the rubbish bin (25)!

1 Corinthians 1:26-31: The foolishness of God’s people
Greek religion and philosophy
Paul was correct to say of the Athenians, I see that in every way you are very religious (Acts 17:22). Indeed, this was true of the entire known world at the time. Religions included everything from the state-controlled worship of the emperor to the ecstatic mystery religions.
The Greek-speaking world was also dominated by a deep interest in philosophical thinking and debate, fuelled through skilled debate among professional debaters. The greatest of the speakers were feted as pop-stars or TV personalities are today.
Much of the New Testament is set in this mixture of religious and philosophical views. This is certainly true of 1 Corinthians where certain of the views held by the false teachers seem to be derived from a religious philosophy which later developed into a movement known as Gnosticism. Paul’s rejection, for example, of eloquence and superior wisdom (see especially 1:18-2:16) seems to reflect his refusal to accommodate Christianity to the pagan religious and philosophical ethos of his day.
God’s message may not appear very sophisticated and neither may his disciples!
The ‘foolish’ gospel message is able to do what clever human philosophies utterly fail to achieve; it saves people (26)! It was this very fact, confirmed by their own experience, that the Corinthians were in danger of forgetting. God might have chosen to put the gospel in a form that would have appealed mainly to the educated and intelligent people or he could have ensured that large numbers of wealthy and important people were converted. However, if this had happened most of the Corinthians would still have been unbelievers. But God had chosen most of them when they were slaves or freedmen: foolish, weak and ‘nothings’ (27, 28).
This description of the Corinthians is a vivid reminder of the conditions under which many men and women lived at the time. There were over sixty million slaves in the Roman empire who, though often well treated and gifted, had the same status as an animal or a tool. From what we know of the early church, the first congregations were largely drawn from among such people: most of the names known to us were common slave-names or were used among the lower classes.
In this way God demonstrated that he was determined to undermine all human pride and boasting (29). So he not only called ‘non-people’ but, through Jesus’ death on the cross, created a people who manifested a ‘new life and love, new purity and peace, new hope and happiness’ within one of the most debauched and degraded cities in the ancient world. Thus, Jesus was demonstrated as true wisdom, and boasting in anything else than him and his death was shown to be an empty shell, a tinsel-covered but empty box (31: Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:23-24).
The tragedy was, however, that the Corinthians were in danger of forgetting this and becoming entranced with clever rhetoric, empty words and powerless human philosophies!
1 Corinthians 2:1-5: The foolishness of the preacher
It is not only the message and the followers of the gospel that sometimes appear foolish but the messengers too.
Paul affirms that his own ministry among the Corinthians was consistent with the principles that he has been teaching in 1:18-31. He does so with much tenderness, addressing his readers in terms of great affection as ‘brothers’ (1). He may find it necessary to be stern but his motive is his deep love and desire to keep the Corinthians in the true faith. So, he reminds his readers of what most of them must have known firsthand: in his ministry among them he had rejected everything that hinted at self-reliance. He did not preach to draw attention to himself either in the content (‘superior wisdom’) or the form (‘eloquence’) of what he said. His sole purpose was to pass on God’s message, his testimony, to his hearers.
This is an important enough point for Paul to explain himself more fully (2). Long before he had arrived in Corinth he had decided on his evangelistic strategy and to do without the rhetorical or philosophical flourishes of Greek ‘wisdom’. That decision involved him in proclaiming the most scandalous of all truths to the Greek thinker, the humiliating crucifixion of Christ. He was prepared to insist on this scandal because it lay at the very heart of the gospel, the testimony of God. The death of Christ as an atonement for sinners determined the whole content of his preaching.
Paul’s poor image
Moreover, as a preacher he had no obvious ability (3). The Corinthians knew this only too well since some were criticizing him for it (2 Corinthians 10:10). However, Paul turns these criticisms on their heads. During his stay in Corinth he had apparently suffered from ill-health. This doubtless gave him a somewhat unimpressive appearance. He was also full of fear. John Calvin writes, ‘he was surrounded by many dangers, he was in perpetual fear and constant anxiety’. It is also possible that Paul was overwhelmed by the task of evangelizing the city (Acts 18:9-11), shy in the face of strange surroundings (Acts 17:15; 18:5) or, perhaps, he was anxiously awaiting news (2 Corinthians 2:13). Whatever it was he felt vulnerable and even the message itself seems to have caused him anxiety, making him feel inadequate to preach it.
The message was so ‘foolish’ and the preacher so poor that the birth of the Corinthian church must have been a marvellous work of God by his Spirit alone (4, 5). There are certain things that cannot be faked, supremely the evidence of changed lives especially in a polluted and depraved city like Corinth. Paul implies that wisdom can produce intellectual conviction of truth but it is powerless to create a living, transforming faith in God. In this way the gospel is verified.
The power of the Spirit
When Paul writes of the demonstration of the Spirit’s power his first thought is of the faith that was created in men and women when they heard the word of God (5). It is unlikely that he is thinking of ‘signs and wonders’ because he is emphasizing weakness here. However, he probably does have in mind both the creation of faith and the gifts of the Spirit that had been received when the Corinthians were converted.

1 Corinthians 2:6-10a: The riches all believers share
Paul reminds his readers of all the privileges that ‘his’ gospel had brought them.
Reading this letter is rather like listening to someone speaking on the telephone. The words are heard, but their precise meaning is not easy to understand because we can’t hear the other end of the conversation. This is especially true in this section. We know that Paul was responding to a letter that he had received (see discussion on 1:1-3) and we also know the ideas that were popular in Corinth at the time.
The church is often plagued by people claiming that the ‘mere gospel’ is merely a stepping-stone to ‘deeper teaching’. Such was apparently the case in Corinth: we can hear echoes of some of the favourite phrases of the false teachers and their claims to teach a message for the ‘mature’ (6) which revealed the deep things of God (10) to the spiritual man (15).
In addition, in the Corinthian church there were those who believed that wisdom was to be found in philosophy and eloquence (see 1:18-25). We catch some of their phrases too: they spoke about ‘mysterious wisdom’ that had been ‘hidden’ (7) from the majority of believers who were ‘fleshly men’ (14) and who were enslaved in ignorance to imaginary spiritual rulers of this age (8). They even seem to have quoted Scripture (verse 9 quotes from Isaiah 64:41, a passage widely misused among the mystery religions of the time).
The cross is vital
It all sounded very attractive and plausible but Paul forthrightly rejects these beliefs (6) using their own language but altogether changing its meaning. He does not despise learning or suggest that the Christian message was foolish nonsense. The Christian message is ‘wisdom’ but of a totally different sort from the Corinthians’ ‘wisdom’. Paul also uses ‘mature’, but he transforms its meaning to apply to all those who are truly living as Christians.
Paul’s argument runs like this in verses 7-8. ‘It is true’, he says, ‘that the gospel I preach can be described in words that you yourselves use, a “mystery”, something which was “hidden” for many centuries. However, it is a mystery that has been revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus and brings benefits to all God’s people. There were of course those who did not realize this. You speak of people as blinded by “the rulers of this age” but you are speaking of imaginary spiritual beings. I, however, do not speak about some mythical invention but of those political and intellectual leaders who invented the ideas you are chasing. They put to death the very one who radiated in his person the glory of God in a bodily form. What folly, then, to allow your ideas about what are spiritual men to be influenced by such blind guides!‘
Paul continues by appealing to a scripture that appears to have been a favourite passage of his opponents (9), an amalgamation of Old Testament texts based on Isaiah 64:4 that spoke of the inconceivable greatness of those things which God has in store for his people. Doubtless the false teachers would have used these words to bolster their own views about hidden mysteries revealed only to the few.
However, Paul notes that in the gospel these things are now revealed through the agency of the Holy Spirit (10a). This leads him to discuss more fully the work of the Holy Spirit and to demonstrate conclusively the bankruptcy of thinking which is blind to spiritual realities and the genuine wisdom of the gospel (10b-16). Note that in verse 6 Paul pointedly changed from speaking of ‘I’ to using the word ‘us’. This is very significant. He had been accused of being a teacher of mere ‘milk’ (3:1), of being among the ‘fleshly men’. His opponents put him in a group from which they excluded themselves. Paul, however, at precisely this point, uses an inclusive word: us. In this very pointed way he rejects any notion of different classes of Christians. In the gospel of Christ crucified all the riches of God have been revealed to all true believers.
Moreover, it is significant that Paul cites a scripture that concludes with the words ‘to those who love him’ (9). It is not knowledge but love that is the mark of true maturity and spirituality (see chapter 13), and it is love that arouses God to reveal more of himself in the cross by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:10b-16: Wisdom from the Spirit
Paul corrects an erroneous understanding of the Spirit.
Paul now shows that, for all their talk, his opponents had a weak view of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Behind this lay a failure to understand properly the serious plight of mankind.
We need the Spirit’s help to understand the truth
Paul begins with a very simple illustration (10b-11). ‘Spirit’ was a word used of the whole of a person’s inner life, including the mind. No-one, he says, knows fully what is going on in another person’s head other than the person himself or herself! So it is with God! His Spirit alone knows all that there is to be known about him. But believers receive as a free and unearned gift the Spirit of God when they become Christians. Consequently, they have the ability to perceive the wisdom of God (12).
So Paul taught as God’s Spirit directs (13). Such an approach, he realizes, does not appeal to those who do not see things spiritually (13, 14). Without the Spirit, people are like those who try to find their way through a vast city with only a fragment of a street plan (15-16). It is not that people’s ideas are necessarily evil so much as inadequate and by nature incapable of perceiving the truth. However, illuminated by the Spirit, the Christian can understand the world, its needs and God’s answer.
So the person without the Spirit is not in a position to criticize the beliefs of a Christian. On the contrary, the believer has the key to judging the beliefs of the world. In a nutshell, God doesn’t need us to advise him as to what is wise or not and believers need not worry about what outsiders say about the gospel, for they, the believers, are the ones in whom Christ Jesus lives by the Spirit.
The basic point, of course, that Paul is making throughout this section is that people are revealed for what they truly are by their reaction to the crucifixion.

1 Corinthians 3:1-4: Spirituality into division won’t go!
Paul is faced with a church that thinks it is spiritual when in fact it is divided. He shows that the two things cannot exist side by side.
So far Paul has discussed two issues: divisions and false teachers. Here, he begins to show that these are part of the same problem.
He is both pastoral and blunt. He calls his readers ‘brothers’ but goes on to insist that they are living as though they were babies, not grown ups (1)! We can probably hear the language of Paul’s opponents in the words ‘worldly’ (a better translation is ‘merely human’) and ‘milk’; this was what they claimed about Paul’s teaching (2). By comparison they were claiming to offer ‘solid food’ which was ‘spiritual’.
Paul’s response is to agree with their verdict on his teaching; it was basic gospel truth dispensed in a form that was digestible to recent converts. However, he points out that they are still not ready for anything else (3), because they are continuing to live like unredeemed human beings who are strangers to the transforming effects of the gospel. This is obvious for it is seen in their petty squabbles (4). Far from being ‘mature’ they were showing that they were mere ‘babies in Christ’.
The danger of ‘Christianity plus’
False teaching often offers a Christianity plus. Paul rejects this. Such teaching is, itself, the mark of immaturity for it fails to find the gospel all-sufficient (see below). It often offers a Christianity that leaves the cross behind (compare 1:18). But Paul emphasizes that there is no truly Christian experience beyond the cross.
Then, false teaching often neglects true holiness: claiming to be ‘spiritual’, these people were living according to the standards of the unbelieving world.
Finally, such is frequently accompanied by a divisive attitude, accompanied by personality cults where leaders are exalted over Christ. These things are not necessarily the marks of heresy but rather of immaturity (1, 2). Such needed careful discipling.
Paul’s teaching here is not all negative. He teaches that a maturing faith builds upon the gospel itself. The letter as a whole shows that it is by an ever-deepening grasp of the gospel first received that growth occurs. This maturing faith is seen in a ‘superhuman’ lifestyle. Thus, Paul expects the true believer to manifest increasingly a quality of life that the unsaved world cannot copy. It is something that only the indwelling Spirit (= spiritual) can produce. Such a maturing faith is seen not in the exalting of others or of self but in honouring Christ (compare 1:1ff.), and is demonstrated, above all, in a peaceable spirit.
1 Corinthians 3:5-9: Only servants
There can be no place for ‘favourites’ and ‘parties’ in Christian work
The Corinthian church had been foolishly divided over which leader they preferred. Paul indicates that there was nothing ‘wise’ or ‘spiritual’ about this (5). In fact, it showed that the congregation had completely failed to understand what the church was and how leaders were expected to function within the fellowship. Each is called by God: the Lord has assigned to each his task.
Each leader is called to servanthood; servants of God but (as this passage indicates) they are also servants of the church. Paul uses a word that could also mean ‘waiter’. It is a word, too, which emphasizes active service. Further, each leader has been given different responsibilities and functions by God. Paul gives a relevant example (6). He had planted the church at Corinth but Apollos (supported by some as an alternative leader) had provided the ongoing evangelistic support needed.
Most important of all, the success of every Christian servant is entirely in the hands of God (7). Whatever Paul and Apollos may have done, it was God who was at work to produce fruit. As a result of this, it is God who ought to be given honour and praise, not the mere ‘table waiters’.
Since each leader is doing the work God has appointed, they are working to achieve the same end within the church of God (8). In verse 9 ‘God’ is mentioned three times; the emphasis throughout is upon God and not personalities. The lesson is obvious: to prefer one ‘waiter’ to another is foolish in itself but to do so when the work of each is necessary to complete the task that God is undertaking is utter stupidity and very far from being ‘spiritual’.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15: Building with care
Leaders are to lead in serving and do it well.
Paul offers specific guidance to the leaders of the church, reminding them that, with the skill and attention to detail of a good architect, he had been given the privilege of planting the church at Corinth (10). That foundation was now being built upon by others.
This was fine: building is to be always in progress. Nevertheless, great care was needed in the building work. In particular, proper foundations (the ones already laid by the apostle) were vital and the proper materials were necessary to ensure a lasting work of real value.
Thus, Paul reminds the Corinthians that there can be only one foundation (11). The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the person and work of the Saviour are the only basis upon which any church fellowship can be established. This emphasis upon Christian basics was doubtless deliberate. It is characteristic of all ‘higher life’ forms of teaching to direct the attention of their followers elsewhere. Paul offers a test by which the presence of false emphases could be recognized within the church.
With verse 12 the direction of Paul’s comments changes: not only must the foundation be the correct one but appropriate materials must be used. The contrast he makes appears to be between durable and perishable materials. It is probably significant that the materials mentioned here which adorned the temple, gold, silver and precious stones, are durable. Paul suggests that a church (that is, the people) discipled effectively upon the foundation of the gospel is one that has eternal value, adorning and glorifying the name of the Lord.
However, it is only too possible that incompetent workmen can ruin a building work (13). Some of these materials may, at first, appear to be ideal; a wooden structure can look more impressive than one of precious metals and stones. But if the wrong materials are used the lasting usefulness is nil. It is the God-given, not the merely human, that is to be pursued. Unaided human endeavour collapses like a building made of hay or stubble.
With this in mind Paul offers a solemn warning to the leaders at Corinth, reminding them that one day God will judge the work that every leader has undertaken. He likens the judgment to a fire that consumes all but the most imperishable of materials.
Sadly, he implies, some church leaders will discover that all their efforts have been wasted (14). While they themselves will not suffer judgment (because their actions were not deliberate or heretical but only misguided and erroneous: verse 15) they will find that there is nothing of value that they can take into the life to come. Indeed, Paul may even suggest that so close has their folly taken them to the brink of their own personal destruction they will, as it were, feel the scorching heat of the judgment themselves!
1 Corinthians 3:16-23: Christ is the head and source of all things
The true nature of the church.
In verse 16 Paul shifts his attention to another vital, but related, matter. The church, Paul reminds his readers, is the sanctuary, the ‘home’ of the only true God and, consequently, the Spirit of God was present in its midst. In a wickedly sinful city the church at Corinth was the only place where God was to be found, a people set apart as his dwelling (‘holy’). But this temple could be desecrated and destroyed through party spirit and quarrelling.
This was a serious possibility since one act of destruction would bring about another; those who destroyed the church would be destroyed in judgment themselves (17). Their punishment would fit the crime! The false teacher was in danger of passing on to his or her eternal destiny naked but secure (15). Here, however, is the suggestion that where such error becomes the basis for destruction of the church (whether advanced by teacher or pupil) then even that security is stripped away; eternal punishment alone awaits the architect of such destruction!
So the apostle reaches his conclusion (18). The problem that he had described is seen as rooted in the ‘wisdom’ teaching that was making inroads into the church. Paul is abrupt; ‘wisdom’ such teaching might be, but only according to the standards of a sinful and fallen world! That being the case, it was high time that the Corinthians who were teaching or following such teaching learnt to be ‘fools’, God’s fools!
He reminds them that worldly wisdom is not compatible with the ways of God (he quotes Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11). Compared to God’s thoughts human thoughts, even at their best, are self-deceiving and futile (19, 20).
So he urges his readers to take God’s perspective (21). This meant that they should not boast in mere table-waiters but recognize that every believer possesses everything (22, 23)! Yet such wealth is that of a steward, for it belongs to another, Christ. Paul emphasizes this by stressing that in Christ alone the individual believer is victor over everything that tyrannizes mankind. Each of the things Paul mentions is something that human beings instinctively cling to or dread and hold us in a vice-like grip. However, the believer is freed from their power; life is not all there is and death is conquered.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5: Answerable to God
Ultimately the faithful Christian worker is answerable only to God.
Paul had earlier used the word ‘servants’ of himself and Apollos (3:5). The same idea is developed here but a different Greek word (also meaning ‘servant’) is used. It is likely that the choice of the word is deliberate since it was a word which emphasized the responsibility of administering the affairs of another, in this case things delegated by Christ. This understanding of the word seems to be supported by the next description, entrusted with the secret things of God, since the word ‘entrusted’ carries the thought of managing the household as the trusted steward.
(Incidentally, Paul places Christ and God alongside one another. This is typical of the way the New Testament often mentions the two in the same breath. The early church had a very high view of Jesus.)
This leads to Paul’s main point: leaders are not the possession of the local church or at its beck and call (2). Every servant or steward is required, above all, to be faithful to his responsibility and charge. In this case, the Christian leader is to be faithful in the presentation of the gospel. The Old Testament had pointed forward to it, but it was now revealed in Christ. Paul and other leaders were responsible to God to minister the gospel faithfully (3).
The criticisms that Paul had been facing in Corinth amounted to nothing short of a judicial enquiry. Though this hurt him (Paul did care ‘a little’!), it was ultimately of no consequence since these were matters for God alone to judge.
Indeed, he did not even feel able to judge his own ministry (4, 5). Although his conscience did not trouble him, he recognized that there are some things, motives and attitudes, that can be hidden even from oneself. So let God alone judge when he is ready.
Paul, of course, was not suggesting that judgment is always wrong (compare 5:12; 6:5). However, when it comes to assessments of success or failure and of an individual’s integrity (which seems to be what Paul is talking about) then there is only one who has the ability and right to make them. God alone fully knows the facts and has full insight into motives.
Oddly, though the Corinthians claimed to be able to judge all things (2:15), they were foolishly claiming an ability in an area outside their competence while being blind to what lay right before them (as the sequel of chapters 5 and 6 shows)!

1 Corinthians 4:6-13: Authentic Christian ministry
Paul contrasts the realities of true Christian ministry with the triumphalistic version offered by the false teachers in Corinth.
It was time, Paul believed, for the truth to be told (6). The church at Corinth must learn from Paul and others, to be humble.
The meaning of the end of verse 6 is not clear but it appears that the Corinthians were in danger of ignoring the teachings and principles of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps their ‘prophets’ regarded their own words as superior, exalting themselves or those with ministries more suited to their ‘higher-life’ tastes (7). Such claims were out of place among those who professed to be disciples of Jesus; they were presumptuous; mere self-congratulation. Moreover, the very things they boasted about (doubtless their spiritual gifts and abilities) were not earned but freely given to them. There could be no basis for such ungrateful pride.
The consequences of such an attitude spawned a belief that they had already ‘arrived’ spiritually and were enjoying their own private experience (‘without us’) of God’s kingdom (8). It was as if they believed that Christ’s final reign had begun already! They were convinced that they were a successful, lively, mature church, satisfied with their spirituality, leadership and quality of life together. They had settled down to the belief that they were all they could be. This had arrested their growth and made them critical of others.
The desire for perfection was fine, but they thought that they had arrived ‘already’. Paul wishes it were so, for then the struggles in the life of faith would be a thing of the past!
The way of the cross
By way of contrast Paul describes what is, essentially, the way of the cross (9), and offers a totally different view of the spiritual life.
For Christ’s sake (10) and in accordance with God’s will, the apostolic experience was very different. Paul recognized that the very things that the Corinthians despised in him were true. Viewed from a worldly perspective (or super-spiritual one, for it amounts to the same thing!), Paul was a failure. Drawing upon the familiar image of a victory procession that ended with the wretched captives, who were doomed to die, the apostle describes himself and his fellow apostles as just such people! They were open to the derision of humanity and the amazement of the angelic powers (with whom, apparently, the Corinthians felt they shared some common ground, speaking their languages: see 13:1).
They experienced not the Corinthian ‘theology of glory’ but a life almost indistinguishable from that of the Saviour. Paul admits that they did not amount to much; the teaching was human folly, their character was of the sort that the Greek mind despised as weak and, consequently, they were regarded as dishonourable. Paul pleads guilty to the charges that the Corinthians had brought against him!
With deep irony (11), Paul mentions to those who had ‘already’ arrived (8) that he suffered great difficulties and wants. The happy ending was still awaited as far as he was concerned and faithfulness to his commission brought constant hardship still. How far the apostles were from the false teachers who thought they were on the throne!
Paul also admits a ‘scandalous’ way of life (12, 13). Greeks would have been shocked by a teacher who worked (and manually at that!) for his living. Moreover, he submitted to cursing, persecution and slander while humility and meekness were considered marks of weakness in Greek culture.
Some interesting allusions may well lie behind the latter part of verse 13. ‘Scum’ was sometimes used of the member of society who was made the scapegoat for a community’s guilt. ‘Offscouring’ was also used of those valueless members of society who were sometimes offered as human sacrifices to propitiate the gods; derelicts who were the meanest, most worthless and most easily spared members of society. So Paul concludes his description of authentic Christian ministry!

1 Corinthians 4:14-21: Remember whose children you are!
A call to grow up and abandon childish preoccupation with ‘talking big’, in favour of the life that the Spirit truly produces.
Paul must now regain his proper (and God-given) respect among the members of the church. But he cannot write like one of the authoritarian and status-conscious leaders whom he has criticized, so he makes an appeal on the basis of his love for them (14). This places him in a very vulnerable position, yet there is no alternative for someone who is not willing to play the game by the false teachers’ rules. Even in his conduct as a leader his approach is dictated by his theology of the cross.
Paul appeals to his founding of the church and his being the one through whom many of the congregation had come to faith (15). This gave him a unique position within the church as its ‘father’. So the apostle appeals to the Corinthians’ loyalty as his offspring. He has, at least, a right to be listened to. In particular, he encourages them to embrace the theology of the cross that characterizes his own life (just as a child is expected to follow the example of its parent). Thus, this is not a call to rally to his ‘party’ but to rally to him because he is modelling Christ to them.
A gentle spirit or a big stick?
Paul hoped to visit Corinth soon (see 19), but meanwhile Timothy was planning to call at the city (17). He emphasizes that Timothy, himself a true and loved spiritual son, is fully equipped to be his representative and, as such, deserves a hearing.
But Paul wants to say more; the message of the gospel is a matter not merely of words but of conduct, a way of life in Christ Jesus. It was wrong for them to exalt themselves over other congregations of God’s people (compare, also, 14:36-38). This was further evidence of spiritual pride.
Paul was aware that some of the false teachers thought that he was too spineless to face them and saw his sending Timothy as evidence of this weakness (18). When God opened the way for him, however, Paul intended to come (19, 20). Then he would uncover the reality behind the false teachers’ claims. He believed that their talk would prove to be only words, unable to bring spiritual life or sustain spiritual growth. They might speak wisdom but it would prove powerless to effect real change in people, whereas his message had all the hallmarks of the power of God released.
In this way Paul challenges the false teachers, not on their grounds but his own. Like children they were ‘talking big’ but had no power to put their words into action. So the Corinthians were to stop boasting and grow up! If they failed, then when ‘father’ Paul arrived he would find it necessary to express his love through the rebuke of the rod rather than ‘gentle’ fellowship (21).

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