The opening verses of the New Testament epistle of 1 Corinthians identify the original recipients of this letter as “…the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). At the time this first century letter was originally written, Corinth was a wealthy commercial center that held a population of about 400,000 people.
Corinth was recognized as an important urban area in the days of the New Testament in light of its geographic location within the Roman Empire. You see, the city of Corinth was located within the Roman province of Achaia near the southern portion of Greece about 45 miles (72km) west of Athens. If we were to examine a map of Corinth during this period, we would find that the city was located near a land area that narrowed down to small isthmus that was only about four miles (6.5km) wide between the Aegean and Ionian Seas.
This location was particularly attractive to sailors and others traveling by sea from the eastern and western portions of the Roman Empire. The primary benefit was economic, for it was difficult, time consuming, and potentially dangerous to navigate around the southern tip of Greece when sailing between Europe and Asia. However, Corinth’s unique position offered a clever and cost-effective solution for many of those who sought to move goods and people throughout the Roman Empire.
To avoid the additional 200 mile (322km) voyage around this southern peninsula, sailors could stop near Corinth, pull their boats out of the water, and transport them by skids or rollers across this four mile wide land mass. The crew could then drop the boat back into the water on the other side and travel on to their intended destination. If a ship was too large to move in this manner, the crew could simply unload their cargo and transport it across land where it could then be loaded onto another ship for delivery.
This advantageous feature meant that Corinth served as a major hub for merchants and other travelers in the days of the first century. As a result, this metropolitan area was recognized as a center of commerce as well as its transient population of sailors, business leaders, traveling salespersons, and military personnel.
Corinth was also known for a few other things (some good and others much less so) during the New Testament period as well. We’ll take a look at some of the societal and cultural features of this cosmopolitan, first-century city next.
Corinth had a prominent and well-deserved reputation as an active commercial center at the time that the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians was originally written. It was also known as a rich, luxurious city that was recognized as a place where those who were interested in pursuing the pleasurable aspects of life could do so.
For instance, Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games, a popular, bi-annual series of sporting events much like our modern-day Olympics. Corinth also featured a large outdoor arena (with seating for 20,000 people) where gladiator contests were held, as well as an indoor theatre with a capacity of 3000 for those who were seeking more sophisticated forms of entertainment. (1)
Although Corinth was recognized as a center for culture, sports, and commerce, it was also well-known for it’s association with pagan religious beliefs. As we’ll see, this unfortunate reality will go on to foreshadow many of the issues that will eventually surface within the book of 1 Corinthians.
Among the many pagan religious establishments within the city of Corinth was the Temple of Aphrodite along with the one thousand priestesses who served there. These “priestesses” were actually temple prostitutes who plied their trade under the guise of religious observance. There were also altars and shrines dedicated to the worship of such mythical gods as Poseidon, Apollo, and Athena, among others. In fact, pagan religious activity was so prevalent within the city of Corinth that one source tells us, “Archaeologists have identified twenty-six sacred places devoted to various ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ in the remains of first-century Corinth.” (2)
Much like ancient Athens, Corinth was also known for its emphasis on education and philosophical thought as well. For instance, a person who was said to speak “in the Corinthian style” was someone who was recognized to be an excellent orator who spoke with great rhetorical skill and an extensive vocabulary.
Unfortunately, there was another ancient saying that characterized Corinth in a more negative manner. You see, a person who was accused of “living like a Corinthian” was someone who was said to possess little or no moral integrity. The Greek theatre of the first century helped reinforce this stereotype by referring to the role of a drunkard as “the Corinthian.” In fact, the Greek word korinthiazomai (which literally meant “to act the Corinthian”) was synonymous with the idea of sexual indiscretion.
Because of this, Corinth held an unusual place in the ancient world. While Corinth served as a great center of industry and education, it was also recognized as a great center of idolatry and immorality as well.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2276). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
(2) B. History Carpenter, E. E., & McCown, W. (1992). Asbury Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/History
As one of the largest cities of the ancient Roman Empire, Corinth was a bustling metropolis that featured a myriad of opportunities for those who were interested in business, travel, the arts, entertainment, and various philosophical pursuits. However, Corinth also had a reputation as a center of decadence, inequity, and idolatrous spirituality as well. In the words of one commentary, “Corinth was a seaman’s paradise and a moral cesspool. Divorce was rampant. Prostitution plagued the streets, and the moral air was polluted with the luring aroma of sin. It was famous for all that is debauched.” (1)
And into this swirling combination of urban sophistication and moral debauchery stepped God’s agent, Paul the Apostle.
Following his work in the city of Athens, Paul first preached the gospel in Corinth during his second missionary journey that took place around A.D. 54. Although Paul had previously engaged in an extensive and well reasoned dialog with many of the leading figures in Athens, it appears that his evangelistic efforts there met with limited success (see Acts 17:16-34). Perhaps this may account for the change of approach we find later on in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “…I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the One who was crucified” (NLT).
Upon his arrival in Corinth, Paul met the acquaintance of a couple named Aquila and Priscilla, two people who had also recently arrived in Corinth as well. As it turned out, Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla were all tentmakers by trade and apparently got along so well that they were able to establish lodging together in the city.
From there, Paul made it his regular practice to speak with the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Corinth about Jesus’ life and ministry. Unfortunately, Paul’s message was largely rejected by the members of the Jewish community which ultimately led to his decision to limit any further ministry in that area to the Gentiles.
However, God blessed Paul’s work among the people of that area for the Scriptures tell us that many of the residents of Corinth accepted Jesus. This included at least one prominent leader among the Jews of that area, a man named Crispus who will also go on to appear in 1 Corinthians chapter one. We’re told that Paul ultimately spent a total of eighteen months in Corinth before departing to continue his work in Syria along with Aquila and Priscilla (see Acts 18:1-18).
However, we’ll soon see that Paul’s departure from Corinth did not mean the end of his relationship with the Corinthians.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2276). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Following the Apostle Paul’s departure from Corinth, he embarked on what has come to be known as his third missionary journey. Despite his absence however, Paul continued to interact and correspond regularly with the members of the Corinthian church. One of these interactions came in the form of a report that Paul received concerning some divisions that had developed within the church. Another took the form of a letter that Paul wrote that is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 but is now lost to us.
Paul also referenced a letter that he received from the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 7:1. This letter apparently contained a number of questions that Paul will go on to answer a little later on within this epistle. If we take the time to read these responses carefully, we can gain some insight into some of the problems that the church may have been experiencing as well as some of the questions that Paul may have been asked.
Finally, we also read of a three person delegation from Corinth that met with Paul as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 16:17-18. Paul expressed his great pleasure at the opportunity to renew his close relationship with these Corinthian believers for (in his words), “…they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked” (NET).
So despite the challenges, reprimands, and admonitions that Paul will go on to issue here in 1 Corinthians, its clear that he held a great degree of love and affection for the men and women who comprised the church in that area. Unfortunately, the problems that plagued the church at Corinth proved to be extremely difficult to uproot.
For instance, we learn from the book of 2 Corinthians that Paul was later forced to make another visit to Corinth that he characterized as “…painful and distressing” (2 Corinthians 2:1 AMPC). There was also an additional letter from Paul to the Corinthians that was apparently so severe that he penned the following message to them after a period of reflection…
“The real purpose of my previous letter was in fact to save myself from being saddened by those whom I might reasonably expect to bring me joy. I have such confidence in you that my joy depends on all of you!
I wrote to you in deep distress and out of a most unhappy heart (I don’t mind telling you I shed tears over that letter), not, believe me, to cause you pain but to show you how deep is my care for your welfare” (2 Corinthians 2:3-4 Phillips).
Paul the Apostle served as the human author for at least thirteen of the twenty-six books of the New Testament and if we take the time to examine these works, we’ll find that they generally follow a basic pattern. In most of these New Testament books, Paul opens with a doctrinal section that discusses the proper understanding of a number of important subjects including the nature of God, Jesus’ life and work, humanity’s relationship to God, and the role and function of the church.
Following the doctrinal portion of each book, Paul typically concludes with an emphasis upon the practical application of the various doctrines that were discussed within the preceding chapters. However, the book of 1 Corinthians is considerably different from these other New Testament writings in this regard.
You see, Paul addresses each of the concerns and issues facing the Corinthian church in a separate and distinct manner throughout this book. We’ll find that Paul will often signal the conclusion of one answer and the beginning of his next response by use of the recurring phrase “Now concerning…” an expression that he uses seven times within the book of 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians is also a book that effectively deals with the spiritual, moral, and practical issues of 21st century life in a constructive manner. For instance, 1 Corinthians provides us with practical guidance in a number of areas such as…
- The manner in which Christians should relate to one other.
- Sexual immorality.
- How to function as a Christian in an unchristian world.
- Strategies for making wise decisions when confronted with the “gray areas” of life.
- Proper conduct within the church.
- The seriousness and importance of communion.
- Spiritual gifts and their proper exercise.
- The nature and characteristics of love.
- The future for those who love God.
One source sums up the value of this book for 21st century readers in the following manner…
“Paul’s letters to the Corinthians retain a remarkable degree of contemporary relevance. The cosmopolitan setting of the church, the individualism of its members and their behavioral aberrations, its arrogant spirituality, and its accommodation to culture strikingly mirror today’s church. Paul’s guidance is still up to date, particularly the call for discipleship modeled after the weakness of Christ, love, edification in worship, and permanent marriages.
Though nearly two millennia have passed, Paul’s call for eschatological urgency is still timely. Even if we are not persuaded that the end of the world is at hand, our lives are too short to be lived for lesser values.” (1)
(1) V. Theological Relevance of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Carpenter, E. E., & McCown, W. (1992). Asbury Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Theological-Relevance-1-2
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother” (1 Corinthians 1:1).
When reading through the Biblical books authored by the Apostle Paul, we find that he often begins each message by identifying himself as an apostle. For instance, consider the opening sentences from the following New Testament epistles…
“Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…” (Romans 1:1).
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…” (Colossians 1:1).
“Paul, an apostle– sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…” (Galatians 1:1 NIV).
One recurring theme within these introductory verses is the emphasis on the fact that Paul was selected to be an apostle of Christ by the will of God. In other words, Paul didn’t purchase the right to be an apostle, he didn’t inherit that title, and he wasn’t elected to his apostolic position. The other apostles did not select Paul to serve among them nor was it a career that he chose for himself. Paul was appointed to his position by the sovereign will of God, a reality that represented the foundation for all he was about to say in his letter to the Corinthian church.
Paul’s God-given authority was something that the Apostle Peter acknowledged as well…
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)
These verses provide us with a number of important insights concerning Paul’s New Testament writings. First, we can say that Peter confirmed Paul’s God-ordained wisdom when he said, “…Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.” We should also notice that Peter categorized Paul’s writings as “Scripture” as well: “Paul talks about these same things in all his letters, but part of what he says is hard to understand. Some ignorant and unsteady people even destroy themselves by twisting what he said. They do the same thing with other Scriptures too” (CEV).
So while it may seem as if Paul was attempting to draw attention to his apostolic position at the beginning of this letter, the reality was that there were a number of serious issues in the Corinthian church that mandated the use of this God-given authority.
“From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother” (1 Corinthians 1:1 NET).
An apostle is a “commissioned representative” much like an emissary or a spokesperson. This word carries the idea of an ambassador or someone who represents another person or nation. So as a representative of Christ who was personally selected by Jesus Himself (see Acts 9:1-15), Paul first made certain to establish his authority for all that was to follow in his letter to the Corinthian church.
However, the fact that Paul felt it necessary to reiterate his calling as an apostle in this letter tells us something important about it’s recipients as well. As one commentator explains…
“When Paul wrote to churches where his authority as an apostle was unchallenged, he did not assert his apostolic title (Philippians 1:1; 1Thessalonians 1:1; Philemon 1:1); but when he corresponded with a church or churches where his apostolic authority might be questioned, he always declared his office in the salutation and sometimes presented the evidence for his apostleship (Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 2Corinthians 1:1)…
As we’ll see, there were some within the Corinthian church who did not appreciate (or perhaps even recognize) Paul’s God-given authority, a situation that Paul will address rather forcefully a bit later.
Included in Paul’s greeting was a man named Sosthenes, an individual who may be the same person mentioned in Acts 18:17. When Paul first arrived in Corinth he came into contact with a man named Crispus, the leader of the local synagogue in that area. Crispus later became a Christian according to Acts 18:8 and apparently resigned (or was removed from) his position as the ruler of the synagogue.
It appears that Crispus was subsequently replaced by a man named Sosthenes who was later beaten in an attempt to bring a civil charge against Paul (Acts 18:12-17). If these two men are one and the same, then it mean that Sosthenes subsequently became a Christian as well for he is identified as “…our brother” here in verse one.
Sosthenes likely served as Paul’s stenographer or amanuensis, a person who was tasked with the responsibility of transcribing a dictated letter.Since Sosthenes does not appear anywhere else within this letter, its possible that Paul mentioned him in order to demonstrate to the Corinthians that a person who was known to them was willing to validate his authority as an apostle of Christ.
(1) Paul T. Butler, Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In First Corinthians College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri
“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Before we continue, we should note the intended audience for the book of 1 Corinthians: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ— their Lord and ours” (NIV).
While this greeting may initially seem to be little more than an aside, the fact that this epistle was intended for the benefit of the Corinthian church as well as anyone else who “…honor(s) the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (AMP) means that this message is personally addressed to anyone who self-identifies as a Christian.
A little later in the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul will discuss a number of events that are recorded for us within the Old Testament books of Exodus and Numbers. In speaking of those events, Paul will provide us with the following piece of God-inspired insight: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition…” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Taken together, these verses serve to remind us of the relevance of the Scriptures to everyday life. A person who prayerfully seeks to apply the Biblical truths that are found within the book of 1 Corinthians (as well as the other Old and New Testament Scriptures) is someone who will be well-prepared to emulate the successes (and avoid the failures) of those Biblical characters who are mentioned within it.
Paul also references “the church of God which is at Corinth…” within this passage as well. Although the word “church” is sometimes used to describe the global Christian community, it is most often used in the New Testament to represent a local congregation that meets within a particular area.
In general, the church is an institution that has been established by Jesus (Matthew 16:18, Colossians 1:18) as an assembly of God’s people who are gathered together to worship Him. (1) It seems clear that Paul recognized this foundational truth, for even though his work was instrumental in helping to establish the church at Corinth, he did not take any credit for its founding. Whatever authority Paul held among the Corinthian believers, he clearly recognized the fact that the church at Corinth was the church of God and not “his” church.
(1) ekklesia G1577 Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Those who are familiar with Paul’s New Testament letters may recognize the use of a familiar greeting in this passage: “Grace to you and peace…” This phrase (or a variation of it) appears twelve times within Paul’s New Testament letters and it clearly served as his preferred means of salutation.
“Grace” is an important Biblical concept that can be defined rather easily in three words: “God’s unmerited favor.” One Biblical teacher expands on this definition by saying, “I like to define grace as the inexhaustible supply of God’s goodness, doing for us what we do not deserve, could never earn, and could never repay.” (1)
In a similar manner, the word peace implies a general sense of contentment and well being. It may refer to freedom from external conflict or the absence of an internal discord like anxiety or insecurity. A person who is free from these internal or external contentions is usually said to be “at peace.”
The ultimate source of grace and peace is “…God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” for it is through Jesus’ sacrificial death that God graciously enables human beings to enter into a relationship with Him. And as Jesus Himself said, “I am leaving you with a gift– peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give isn’t fragile like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27 TLB).
In light of the issues that Paul will address here in the book of 1 Corinthians, it may also seem unusual to find an expression of thanksgiving in these verses. But unlike Paul’s letter to the Philippian church in which he said, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you…” (Philippians 1:3), Paul’s expression of thankfulness here in 1 Corinthians was not directed towards the members of the Corinthian church but towards the God who had extended His grace towards them.
So even within the midst of a difficult situation (such as the one that existed in Corinth), Paul maintained a sense of thanksgiving by focusing his attention upon God and His work the lives of His people. In doing so, Paul followed his own good advice…
“…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy— meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:4-7).
This passage provides us with a subtle but important lesson that we can put into practice in working with others today.
Notice that Paul did not immediately seek to identify the various issues that existed within the Corinthian church at the beginning of this letter. He did not begin with a catalog of faults or a list of problems that needed to be fixed within the church. Instead, he began by focusing upon the positive characteristics that identified the church at Corinth.
For example, Paul mentioned the grace that God had extended towards the Corinthian believers, their spiritual enrichment in Christ, and their God-given gifts before proceeding on to other, more negative issues. In fact, Paul will not begin to discuss any of the problems that existed within the Corinthian until the tenth verse of 1 Corinthians chapter one.
A person who emulates this approach today will often find that it serves to turn a negative situation into an opportunity for growth and personal development. This has led one commentator to offer the following observation…
“Before speaking of the faults which he must rebuke, (Paul) speaks of the grounds for praise and hope. He did not forget these, because there was much that he could not praise. He could see their improvement on their former condition, as well as their present faults. A good example for all critics.” (1)
This reference to speech (or utterance as translated above) involves the ability to communicate effectively, a valuable gift for anyone to possess. “Knowledge” may refer to a good grasp of factual information or the comprehension of a God-given message. Paul will go on to discuss the abuses of such gifts later on in 1 Corinthians, but for now, he establishes a foundation of thanksgiving with his readers as he expresses his appreciation for the blessings that God had bestowed upon them.
Nevertheless, this passage tells us that the issues in the Corinthian church were not related to the fact that God had neglected to bless them with these spiritual benefits; on the contrary, the phrase “…you come short in no gift” seems to imply that the Christian community in Corinth held such gifts in abundance despite their problems.
This portion of Scripture reminds us that the outward expression of a spiritual gift may not always be a good indicator of real spiritual maturity- and the fact that someone possesses a spiritual gift does not necessarily mean that he or she is exercising that gift in an appropriate manner.
(1) Barton W. Johnson, People’s New Testament http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pnt/view.cgi?bk=45&ch=1
“…eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:7-9).
We can find a source of great encouragement in the following words from 1 Corinthians 1:8: “He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns” (NLT). In commenting on the implications of this verse, one source makes a number of important observations…
“The words that follow contain one of the strongest statements within Paul’s letters of his conviction that his converts would be enabled to persevere in their faith until the time of our Lord’s return.
Paul bases his confidence neither on the strength of his converts’ faith nor on his own ability to pastorally maintain them in the faith, but rather on the sustaining and atoning power of Christ and the faithfulness of God, both of which are constantly available to those who have been called into fellowship with the Son.” (1)
Much like a home is sustained through the use of a strong frame built upon a secure foundation, God is able to support and sustain those who come to Him through Christ. The Apostle Paul expressed a similar conviction within the New Testament books of Philippians and 2 Timothy when he wrote the following under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…
“And I am sure that God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns” (Philippians 1:6 TLB).
“…I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to safely guard all that I have given him until the day of his return” (2 Timothy 1:12 TLB).
Notice that Paul’s confidence was not based upon the faithfulness of the Corinthian Christians but upon God’s faithfulness to them. God’s work in their lives was established through their calling into the fellowship of His Son and would continue until “…the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” in whatever form that day might take.
However, the fact that the members of the Corinthian church had been called into fellowship with Christ had implications for their fellowship with others- and Paul will discuss those implications beginning with some factions that had developed within the church next.
(1) Elwell, W. A. (1995). Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, 1 Co 1:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).
1 Corinthians 1:10 reveals the first issue that Paul sought to address within the church at Corinth: “…some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (NIV). This tells us that a number of divisions had developed within the Christian community at Corinth and in this instance, the congregation had divided over those who were recognized to be leaders within the church.
For example, Paul had been greatly used by God to help establish the church in that area. Because of this, it’s easy to see how some within that congregation were eager to support him as a “founding father” of the church.
Then there was Apollos, an eloquent speaker who was knowledgeable in the Scriptures according to Acts 18:24-28. Acts 19:1 tells us that Apollos was active in Corinth and was he clearly well-known among the members of the church there. His skill and proficiency as a communicator would have certainly appealed to those who were academically inclined.
The reference to Cephas (or Peter) identifies a third group that chose to focus upon one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. Like a modern-day historian seeking out a first-person interview or original source material, the Apostle Peter would have been held in high regard by those who questioned the value of receiving “secondhand” information concerning Jesus when Peter was available to provide an eyewitness report.
Finally, there was a contingent of others who simply said, “I follow Christ” (ESV). These were the members of the congregation who apparently preferred to dismiss these other leaders in order to say in effect, “You can follow those human teachers but I’m following Jesus.”
So the members of this culturally and materially diverse congregation had splintered into different groups that each expressed a preference for one of these individual leaders. But as Paul will go on to tell us, the need for spiritual unity was far more important than any of these individual preferences.
“For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13).
The “Chloe” spoken of within this passage is someone who is virtually unknown to us. However, we can say that these members of her household were probably servants or family members who were known both to Paul and the members of the church at Corinth.
Paul’s interaction with these individuals helps provide us with a valuable principle that we can use to govern our discussions with others. You see, Paul might have elected to rely on “unnamed sources” or “anonymous reports” in addressing the factions that had developed within the Corinthian church. Instead, he instead chose to identify the source of the report he received concerning this issue.
While it is important to utilize wisdom and discretion in discussing the information we receive concerning others, this passage serves to remind us that it is generally inappropriate to pass along hearsay, third-party reports, or other, similar types of information unless we are willing to follow Paul’s good example and quote the sources involved. Although it may be appropriate to protect a source of information in certain instances, a person who follows this simple principle can often reduce the potential for damaging gossip, rumor-mongering, or unsubstantiated speculation regarding others.
Paul went on to address this concern with the first of a series of rhetorical questions: “Has Christ been divided into factions?” (NLT). In other words, does Jesus belong to a limited section of the church and not to others? Well of course the answer is no. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for some modern-day congregations to follow this example by uniting behind one member of a pastoral staff or another person who serves in a visible position of ministry.
While it is not necessarily wrong to favor one speaker over another, it is certainly wrong to divide into factions over one particular leader. One commentator expresses this idea in the following manner…
“Though division is ungodly, it is not wrong to make distinctions between churches and ministers. God has made different churches and different ministries with different callings and characters, because the job of preaching the gospel is too big for any one group. It is one thing to prefer one minister to another, but we cannot divide into cliques behind one minister or another” (1)
(1) Guzik, Dave 1 Corinthians 1 – Jesus, the Wisdom of God http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/4601.htm
“My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13 NIV).
A little later in his message to the Corinthian church, Paul will go on to tell us, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:27). So just as a human body cannot be divided into it’s individual components and still remain intact, these passages remind us that the same is true of Jesus’ church, the body of Christ- it cannot be divided into different factions among individual human leaders.
Paul expanded upon this general idea of “oneness” in his letters to the churches at Ephesus, Colosse, and Rome as well…
“There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
“…(Jesus) is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18).
“For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:4-5).
To further cement this idea in the minds of the Corinthian believers, Paul offered the following questions: “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” As one source observes in commenting on this verse, “No human leader, not even an apostle, should be given the loyalty that belongs only to the Lord. Such elevation of leaders leads only to contention, disputes, and a divided church. Christ is not divided and neither is His body, the church.” (1)
These passages are highly applicable for God’s people today and this is especially true of those who attend larger churches or churches that feature a multiplicity of leaders. For those who may feel tempted to divide into factions behind an individual leader, one commentator provides us with some important counsel: “If we are divided because we are polarized around our leaders, there’s something wrong with our relationship to Christ, and there’s something wrong with the way we view our leaders.” (2)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (1 Co 1:13). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Woodward, Dick Mini Bible College International Booklet Eighteen Verse by verse Study of First Corinthians (Part 1) http://02b433758172738aad63-9bd66b8f81efe85247b52e4acbee6da4.r32.cf2.rackcdn.com/ENG-READ-18.pdf
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other.
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).
In light of the divisions that had developed within the Corinthian church, Paul expressed his relief that he had only baptized a limited number of people from that congregation lest anyone accuse him of attempting to organize his own group of supporters. As one Biblical paraphrase puts it, “God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done…” (MSG).
Of course, this should not be understood to imply that Paul was minimizing the importance of baptism. The idea was that God had assigned Paul with the primary responsibility of preaching the gospel; thus he had little interest in aspiring to the role of “Paul the Baptist.” Instead, Paul attended to the responsibility of fulfilling God’s call to his area of ministry- and his focus upon the work that he had been given to do provided him with a valuable benefit in this instance.
This principle was certainly not unique to Paul, for as a much more famous baptizer once remarked, “God in heaven appoints each man’s work. My work is to prepare the way for (the Messiah) so that everyone will go to him” (John 3:27-28 TLB). Taken together, these verses help remind us of the need to prayerfully determine God’s calling on our lives. If we should fail to do so, we may find ourselves doing something other than what God has actually called us to do.
As Jesus Himself reminded us in John 9:4, “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the One who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work” (NLT). One source summarizes this idea for us in the following manner…
“Paul was emphasizing that no one person should do everything. Paul’s gift was preaching, and that’s what he did. Christian ministry should be a team effort; no preacher or teacher is a complete link between God and people, and no individual can do all that the apostles did. We must be content to operate within the gifts God has given to us, and carry out his plan wholeheartedly.” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible NKJV 1 Corinthians 1:17 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Prior to his arrival in Corinth, the New Testament book of Acts tells us that Paul ministered in the ancient city of Athens (see Acts 17:15-34). Although Athens was renowned for its leadership in the areas of literature, arts, politics, and architecture, there was something that disturbed Paul as he toured the city….
“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).
It was allegedly said that there were so many idols within ancient Athens that it was easier to find a “god” than a man there. So Paul took the opportunity to communicate the truth about God to the residents of the city- and that caught the attention of some local intellectuals…
“Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,’ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.’ For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:18-21).
Paul’s message caught the attention of two very different groups. The Epicureans believed that pleasure and happiness were the most important goals in life. The Stoics believed in living a structured and orderly life that was unaffected by anything that took place within the outside world. But while these two groups held very different beliefs, there was one thing they had in common- they both were far from the truth.
Even though these philosophers seemed to be interested in hearing from Paul, it also appears that they held little respect for him for Acts 17:18 tells us that they responded by saying, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (NIV). Another possible translation of this response might be, “What is this birdbrain talking about?”
But as we’ll soon see, the “birdbrain” had a lot to talk about.
“The teaching about the cross seems foolish to those who are lost. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ERV).
Paul the Apostle’s God-inspired observation from 1 Corinthians 1:18 was verified by his personal experience in the city of Athens…
“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Paul began by observing that the Athenians clearly believed in the existence of a higher spiritual realm- so much so that they even erected an altar to the “Unknown God.” Since this God was admittedly unknown to citizens of Athens, Paul took the opportunity to introduce Him…
“God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24-25).
Paul went on to correct a common misconception regarding the nature of God; God is not a part of creation- He is separate and distinct from it. This is important to remember for whenever a similar misunderstanding about God exists, then everything that ultimately proceeds from that misunderstanding is likely to be wrong as well.
Paul then continued by quoting a member of Athens’ artistic community…
“for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:28-29).
Paul’s argument was simple: the people of Athens had created God in their image rather than the other way around. In a similar manner, a person who holds to a belief about God that is based upon his or her own idea of Him effectively turns God into a self-projection, much like the idols created by the Athenians.
This creates a problem if God turns out to be different than what we thought. You see, God is who He says He is, but He may not be who we say He is if our image of Him is based on something other than the Scriptures.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV).
To illustrate the underlying truth of 1 Corinthians 1:18, we can turn to the record of Paul’s experience in preaching the gospel to the people of the city of Athens…
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:28-34 ESV).
So there were some among the Athenians who laughed off the idea of Jesus’ resurrection while others chose to put off any further discussion of the subject. These responses tell us something important regarding the manner in which others may often respond to the basic truths of Christianity.
You see, the concept of a God who “…commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” may be too much for the human ego to accept. When faced with that message, it’s often tempting to laugh off (or put off) a response for that represents an easy way to deal with the uneasy suspicion that we will eventually have to answer for our actions to our Creator.
We should also remember that the citizens of Athens comprised one of the leading intellectual communities of Paul’s day. They were among the most well-read and well-spoken people in the world at that time, yet many of these same individuals accepted the ludicrous idea that a piece of stone that was conceived and shaped by a human being somehow represented an actual “god.” On the other hand, Paul validated his call to repentance by appealing to the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, an event that served to verify His ministry and teachings.
Much like the citizens of ancient Athens, its not uncommon to encounter those who are highly intelligent yet hold to some ridiculous beliefs- and Paul will go on to address this apparent dichotomy in greater detail within the next few verses of 1 Corinthians chapter one.
“For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power” (1 Corinthians 1:18 GNB).
The New Testament book of Acts tells us that the members of Athens’ academic community responded to the Apostle Paul’s call to repentance and the message of Jesus’ resurrection in the following manner: “When they heard Paul speak of the resurrection of a person who had been dead, some laughed, but others said, ‘We want to hear more about this later'” (Acts 17:32 TLB).
So it appears that there were at least some among Paul’s audience who found his message to be difficult to believe. For these individuals, the question might well have been, “You’re trying to tell us that a man who claimed to be God came down and saved the world by dying?” Of course, this type of response is not very different from the way in which people often respond to the message of the Gospel today.
For many, God’s plan of salvation through Christ may sound laughable, just as it did to the intellectuals of Paul’s day. For others, the message of the cross just seems unreasonable. However, Paul will go on to counter these responses with a patient, well-reasoned explanation here in his letter to the church at Corinth…
“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:19-21).
While God’s plan of salvation through Christ is superior to reason, it is not contrary to reason. Remember that God is both omniscient (or all-knowing) and omnipotent (or all-powerful). Because of this, God possesses the ability to accomplish things in a manner that no finite human mind could ever anticipate.
In fact, God Himself said as much through the pen of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours” (Isaiah 55:9 CEV). Yet because God’s methods don’t always seem to make sense on a human level, they are sometimes rejected or labeled as “foolish.”
But are God’s methods as unreasonable as some believe them to be? We’ll consider that question next.
“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:19-21).
Here’s a question: when faced with the need to make a decision, do people always have all the information necessary to make the right choice? Well if we were to answer that question honestly, we’d really have to say no. The truth is that we rarely have all the information necessary to make the best decision at any given point in time.
Because of this, we are often forced to make decisions that are based upon the best information available. If additional information later becomes known, the wisdom or foolishness of a particular decision may then become more obvious. This is why people are often heard to say, “If I only knew then what I know now…” after making a poor decision.
If we had access to all of the information necessary to make the right choices in life then we could certainly make better decisions; however, the only Being who possesses all of the available information is God Himself. This is important to remember for it helps us understand why God may sometimes seem to act in a manner that appears to be foolish or unreasonable on a human level.
If a person had access to everything that God knows, then he or she would find His actions to be wise, reasonable, and appropriate in every instance. A person with the ability to see the same “big picture” that God sees would never have to ask, “why?” If God’s decisions sometimes appear to be foolish or unreasonable, it is only because we don’t have access to all the information that He possesses.
Therefore, we would do well to prioritize God’s will in the decision-making process and keep these passages from the Scriptures in mind…
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV).
“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it” (James 1:5 TLB).
“So what does this say about the philosopher, the law expert, or anyone in this world who is skilled in making clever arguments? God has made the wisdom of the world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 ERV).
“For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called “foolish” message we preach, God decided to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21 GNB).
Every thinking person is eventually confronted by the foundational questions of life: “How did our world come to exist? Why am I here? Why are things the way they are? Where am I going? Does my life have any meaning?” Even those who refuse to enter such debates must still rely on a set of core assumptions in regard to these questions in order to make decisions in life.
You see, the answers to many of these questions will largely be determined by our worldview. One source defines a “worldview” as, “the overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world” and “a collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.” (1)
A worldview represents a set of core beliefs that provide a way to understand and interpret the circumstances of life. These core beliefs (no matter how deeply hidden or obscure they may seem to be) serve to influence our decisions in many different areas. This would include our choices in the areas of employment, finance, time management, entertainment, leisure activity, and social opportunities, just to name a few.
In a similar manner, the members of the church at Corinth were faced with a decision: “Should we conform to the worldview of those who who reject the God of the Scriptures or should we adhere to a worldview that recognizes and accepts God’s plan of salvation, a position that the world finds foolish?” One source contrasted the difference between these two competing worldviews by describing the proponents of “…the wisdom of the world” in the following manner…
“The wise is probably a reference to Greek philosophers. The scribe is a technical term for a Jewish scholar trained to handle details of the Law. The disputer refers to a Greek person, especially one trained in rhetoric. These professionals tried to solve every problem with logic and debate. The point of this passage is that all human efforts to find favor with God fall woefully short (Rom. 3:9–28). Only through faith in Christ can we be saved from our sins.” (2)
We’ll discuss the role of a worldview in establishing our principles next.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language 3rd Edition
(2) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s New illustrated Bible Commentary (1 Co 1:20–21). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in His wisdom saw to it that the world would never know Him through human wisdom, He has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21 NLT).
1 Corinthians 1:20-21 provides us with a contrast between two distinct worldviews. On one side is the “wisdom of this world,” a position championed by the “the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters.” On the other side is a plan of salvation offered by “God in His wisdom,” one that is the antithesis of any plan that might find its origin in human wisdom. The members of the church at Corinth stood between these competing worldviews just as we do today.
There is much to learn from this passage for it reminds us that an underlying worldview serves to influence our philosophies about life. In this context, the word “philosophy” refers to “a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.” (1) The problem is that any philosophy can be good or bad depending on the worldview that it is based upon.
For instance, the apostle Paul offered the following admonition in his Biblical letter to the members of the church that met in the ancient town of Colossae: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
If we look closely at the choices that others make on a daily basis, we should be able to identify some examples of philosophies that are based on the worldly principles that Paul speaks of. For example…
- Everyone has their own truth (relativism)
- If it feels good, do it (hedonism).
- I do whatever is best (or whatever works) for me (pragmatism).
- Nothing really matters in the end (fatalism).
The issue with these philosophies can be traced to the worldview that each is built upon. Some imply that human beings (and not their Creator) serve as the ultimate arbiters of what is good or right while others grow out of a kind of “wisdom” that assumes that people will never have to give an ultimate account for their choices in life.
This is important because these underlying attitudes and beliefs ultimately influence the choices we make. You see, people usually act upon what they believe and not upon what they do not believe- and as one commentator reminds us, “If humans could save themselves through their actions or intellect, then Christ’s death would not have been necessary…” (2)
(1) philosophy. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/philosophy (accessed: October 14, 2015).
(2) Dr. Bob Utley, 1 Corinthians 1, © 2014 Bible Lessons International www.freebiblecommentary.org http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_01.html
“For consider, what have the philosopher, the writer and the critic of this world to show for all their wisdom? Has not God made the wisdom of this world look foolish? for it was after the world in its wisdom failed to know God, that he in his wisdom chose to save all who would believe by the ‘simple-mindedness’ of the Gospel message” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21 Phillips).
A common criticism among those who challenge the Christian faith is that Christianity tends to de-emphasize the pursuit of knowledge, scientific advancement, and critical thinking. For such “freethinkers,” the entire concept of “God” often represents an intellectual pretense or a means of evasion for the the fearful, weak-minded, intellectually lazy, or those who refuse to accept the “truth” concerning the realities of human existence. Of course, it could also be said that a Christian must often become more of a thinking person in order to engage the seemingly endless assortment of individuals who seek to challenge his or her faith, but that’s beside the point.
In any event, these types of criticisms often seem to find their origin in an underlying desire to establish a creation without a Creator. One source expands on this idea by observing: “Human wisdom—whether ancient Greek philosophy or modern evolutionary scientism—has always sought to explain the origin of the world by some means apart from its God and Creator. In the sight of God, this attempt is not true wisdom, true philosophy, or true science, but mere rebellious foolishness (Psalm 14:1; Romans 1:22).” (1)
This is not to say that all human displays of wisdom or intellect are foolish. For instance, no rational person would dispute the fact that many brilliant and gifted individuals who reject a Biblical worldview have been responsible for numerous scientific achievements. We should be thankful and appreciative of the hard work and dedication of anyone who seeks to alleviate suffering, improve the human condition, and work for the benefit of humanity through advancements in science and technology.
Nevertheless, any worldview that attempts to establish a creation without a Creator will ultimately prove to be unwise no matter how enlightened that belief may appear to be for the moment. The Old Testament book of Proverbs provides us with an important piece of insight in this regard when it tells us, “…the reverence and fear of God are basic to all wisdom. Knowing God results in every other kind of understanding” (Proverbs 9:10 TLB). A person who chooses to live as if God did not exist would do well to consider the summary declaration of Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’…”
(1) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes 1 Corinthians 1:21 http://www.icr.org/books/defenders/7332/
“This is why the Scripture says: I will put an end to the wisdom of the so-called wise, and I will invalidate the insight of your so-called experts.
So now, where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the skilled debater, the best of your time? Step up, if you dare. Hasn’t God made fools out of those who count on the wisdom of this rebellious, broken world? For in God’s deep wisdom, He made it so that the world could not even begin to comprehend Him through its own style of wisdom; in fact, God took immense pleasure in rescuing people of faith through the foolishness of the message we preach” (1 Corinthians 1:19-21 Voice).
Before we leave this passage, we should pause to consider one final observation regarding the different types of wisdom that are described for us within these verses.
While the message of 1st Corinthians 1:19-21 can be applied within every generation and culture, one source provides us with a helpful frame of reference by defining the idea of “wisdom” as it was commonly understood by the original recipients of this letter…
“In first-century Corinth, ‘wisdom’ was not understood to be practical skill in living under the fear of the Lord (as it frequently is in Proverbs), nor was it perceived to be some combination of intuition, insight, and people smarts (as it frequently is today in the West). Rather, wisdom was a public philosophy, a well-articulated world-view that made sense of life and ordered the choices, values, and priorities of those who adopted it.
The ‘wise man,’ then, was someone who adopted and defended one of the many competing public world-views. Those who were ‘wise’ in this sense might have been Epicureans or Stoics or Sophists or Platonists, but they had this in common: they claimed to be able to ‘make sense’ out of life and death and the universe.” (1)
For many today, the choices, values, and priorities of daily life are often shaped by a worldview (and resulting philosophy) that is governed by the following questions: “Does this seem right to me? Does this align with my personal agenda? How will others react or respond to this? Is this best for me?” These questions often reflect the type of “wisdom” that most people undoubtedly follow in an attempt to make sense of life today.
For those who subscribe to this approach, Jesus offers an alternative philosophy that serves to benefit its adherents both in this life as well as the next: “…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33).
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1”. “Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable” (Verse 20). “www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/1-corinthians-1.html“. 2012.
“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
A “sign” generally refers to something that points to (or designates) something else- and much like the signpost that points the way to a particular destination, the spiritual leadership of Paul’s day sought to authenticate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah by way of a miraculous symbol or supernatural attribute.
Unfortunately, a sign will do little to point the way for those who choose to reject it. Such was the experience of Jesus with the religious leaders of His era. Consider the following exchange between Jesus and a first-century group of spiritual leaders known as the Pharisees…
“…(Jesus) immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha. Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him” (Mark 8:10-11).
So the Pharisees sought to coerce Jesus into validating His ministry on their terms by way of “…a miraculous sign from heaven” (NLT). However, God had already fulfilled this request for a celestial sign at the time of Jesus’ birth…
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’
…(When Herod) had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel’” (Matthew 2:1-2, 4-6).
So these earlier leaders had the right information about God’s Savior- they even quoted directly from an Old Testament prophecy concerning Him. But even though they had the right information, they had little apparent interest in validating the heavenly sign they had already received concerning the Messiah.
A sign will do little good to those who are unwilling to follow it- and we should be careful in seeking to oblige God to validate His work on our terms lest we willfully ignore the signs that He has already provided (John 2:18-22).
“Jews ask for miraculous signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but our message is that Christ was crucified. This offends Jewish people and makes no sense to people who are not Jewish” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 GW).
This passage provides us with an opportunity to address a question that people often ask concerning the existence of God. You see, there are those (much like the Jewish population of Paul’s day) who demand a miraculous sign to validate the reality of God’s existence. For example, its not uncommon to hear others say, “If God exists, then why hasn’t He shown Himself? If God would demonstrate His existence, then I would believe in Him.” In addressing this type of response, we might say that God has already tried that approach with humanity- and it failed.
Those who are familiar with the account of Israel’s exodus from the nation of Egypt may recall the method by which God directed His people during that time: “…the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light… He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).
This meant that anyone who wished to confirm the reality of God’s existence could do so by simply looking to the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night. These signs provided an unmistakable confirmation of God’s existence both day and night. But how effective were these graphic displays of God’s reality?
Well, Exodus 32:7-8 later goes on to tell us this: “…the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'”
So even though the people of that era had access to these unmistakable evidences for God’s existence, they deliberately chose to reject them in favor of something else. Regrettably, this same response often holds true today, for as we’re reminded in New Testament book of Romans, “…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 NIV).
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 NIV).
The Scriptures tell us that there are certain types of “wisdom” that find their origin in the things of this world (James 3:13-17). While the application of such wisdom in the affairs of this life may seem beneficial (at least for now), what would happen if this world and its value system ever ceased to exist?
Of course, there are many who choose to dismiss that possibility in light of the fact that the ancient prophecies of lost civilizations, the configuration of certain celestial bodies, and the speculative imaginings of so-called prophecy “experts” have all failed to accurately predict the end of the world. Yet even if we are not persuaded that the end of the world is approaching for all humanity, the end of this world is always close at hand for each of us on an individual basis.
Consider the scenario that formed the basis for Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward…
“There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward'” (Luke 16:1-2).
Just as the unjust steward was told, “Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward” (RSV), the day of our passing also brings an end to the stewardship of our lives here on earth. Each of us will then turn in an account of our stewardship to our Creator- and that audit will reveal how we have managed our individual lives. (1)
The problem is that the value system of heaven will be very different from what we know today, and a steward who has built his or her life upon the wisdom of an “adulterous and sinful generation” (to use Jesus’ terminology from Mark 8:38) will have much to answer for.
As long as this world exists in its current form, the wisdom that supports it will be viewed as sensible, practical, and expedient by many. But when this world is eventually replaced by “…a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13) the type of wisdom that is associated with this corrupt world system will also collapse as well. As one source observes, “There is a form of ‘wisdom’ in our world’s fallen reasoning. But the world’s wisdom… does not take into account the eternal consequences for our life’s actions…” (2)
(2) Caldwell, Bob James 3 The Untamable Tongue v.15
“It seems foolish to the Jews because they want a sign from heaven as proof that what is preached is true; and it is foolish to the Gentiles because they believe only what agrees with their philosophy and seems wise to them. So when we preach about Christ dying to save them, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 TLB).
The religious and non-religious populations of the New Testament era had issues with God’s plan of salvation through Christ for different reasons. For instance, some within the Jewish community expected God’s Savior to arrive as a conquering leader who would immediately free the nation of Israel from the oppression of the Roman government. Since the Messiah was generally understood to be a person of strength and power, those who expected Jesus to be an all-conquering deliverer were sure to be disillusioned by His crucifixion and death.
On the other hand, some among the Gentile populations of the first century held a similarly dismissive opinion of the gospel for other reasons…
“Greeks, too, considered the Good News foolish: They did not believe in a bodily resurrection, they did not see in Jesus the powerful characteristics of their mythological gods, and they thought no reputable person would be crucified. To them, death was defeat, not victory.” (1)
Much like those who said of Jesus, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah…” (Luke 23:35 NIV), the Greek and Roman societies of the first century had difficulty accepting the idea that Jesus’ death upon the cross was anything other than foolish. After all, if Jesus could not save Himself, then how could He possibly save others?
Although the grounds for rejecting Christ were different, both groups did hold one area of agreement: Jesus had failed to meet their expectations in each instance. In a similar manner, there may be some today who are content to follow Jesus as long as He is perceived to be the kind of person they want Him to be. Perhaps they may see Jesus as someone who can help them achieve financial, professional, or political success or they may view Him as someone with the power and ability to help secure the things they desire.
If Jesus somehow fails to meet those expectations, such people may be unwilling to modify their preferences to align them with His agenda- and as one commentator has pointed out, “the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how ‘the God who makes sense’ ought to do things.” (2)
(1) Life Application Study Bible 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
(2) Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pg. 74, quoted in Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable (1:22), http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf
“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;” (1 Corinthians 1:25-27).
Anyone who is familiar with the New Testament record of Jesus and His encounters with the leaders of His day should not be shocked to find that He is also largely rejected among the members of the social and/or academic elite of our own time.
One explanation for this can be found in examining the attitudes of those who served within positions of spiritual authority during Jesus’ time…
“Rumors and opinions about the true identity of Jesus divided the crowd. Some wanted to arrest Him, but no one dared to touch Him. The officers who had been sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to take Jesus into custody returned empty-handed, and they faced some hard questions.
Chief Priest and Pharisees: Where is Jesus? Why didn’t you capture Him?
Officers: We listened to Him. Never has a man spoken like this man.
Pharisees: So you have also been led astray? Can you find one leader or educated Pharisee who believes this man? Of course not. This crowd is plagued by ignorance about the teachings of the law; that is why they will listen to Him. That is also why they are under God’s curse” (John 7:43-49 Voice).
So if the members of the church at Corinth were distressed by their lack of social standing among the sophisticates of their era, they were in good company for this passage tells us that Jesus Himself was largely rejected by the affluent, educated, and/or influential members of society’s upper classes as well.
One commentator completes this thought in the following manner…
“Paul does not say: ‘Not any,’ but: ‘Not many.’ There have always been a few brilliant or powerful or aristocratic men who have devoted their gifts to the Lord and His Word, but they have always been the exceptions.
This passage, in fact, is a remarkably fulfilled prophecy, having remained incisively true for almost two thousand years. Rather than being discouraged by the intellectual snobbery of educated unbelievers, their very dominance in the world should be regarded as merely another proof of the inspiration of the Scriptures.” (1)
(1) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes 1 Corinthians 1:26 http://www.icr.org/books/defenders/7335/
“Brothers and sisters, consider what you were when God called you to be Christians. Not many of you were wise from a human point of view. You were not in powerful positions or in the upper social classes” (1 Corinthians 1:26 GW).
For many, the definition of success in life is tied to certain cultural indicators such as financial wealth, social standing, societal influence, public opinion, or professional status. However, it seems that many of these qualities were lacking among the members of the church at Corinth, or at least they were when these men and women accepted Christ.
While this lack of stature might have been viewed as a negative by those outside the Christian community, Paul will eventually go on to provide a different (and more eternally significant) measure of achievement in life. But first, the apostle will establish the facts at hand: “…think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (NIV). In light of this, we might say that the church at Corinth was largely populated by a collection of “nobodies.”
While this pointed observation may not have done much to build the self-esteem of those who attended the church at Corinth, it is entirely consistent with the fact that God does not always elect to use the most skillful or accomplished people in working to achieve His objectives.
For instance, the New Testament book of Hebrews provides us with an extensive list of people who were used of God to accomplish His purposes. That list (found in Hebrews chapter eleven) includes a hot-headed playboy (Samson), a fearful and reluctant leader (Gideon), a prostitute (Rahab), and the son of a prostitute (Jepthah).
We might also look to the Old Testament examples of Abraham (a man who was called out of a place of obscurity), Jeremiah (a person who was admittedly young and inexperienced), and David, a youth who was apparently so much of an afterthought that his father never even considered the possibility that God had placed a calling on his life.
In the Gospels we also have the examples of the men who were called to be Jesus’ disciples, a group that included four commercial fishermen, a tax agent, a skeptic, a political extremist, and four unknowns.
These Biblical examples help to remind us that God doesn’t necessarily choose the best qualified personnel to achieve His objectives. Instead, He may choose to commission ordinary individuals and then do extraordinary things in and through them.
We’ll consider God’s purpose in calling such people next.
“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
These verses tell us that God may sometimes elect to use flawed, imperfect human beings to accomplish His purposes. Instead of selecting from among those who appear to be the “best and brightest” of humanity, God may instead choose to use ordinary people (along with all their challenges and shortcomings) in order to advance His agenda.
God’s purpose in taking this approach is revealed in verse twenty-nine: “so that no one can boast in his presence” (NET). While human beings may sometimes struggle to understand the purpose behind God’s judgments, this is one area where human experience can help us appreciate the reasoning for this particular decision.
For instance, most people know what its like to have someone else take credit for the work that another person has done. For some, it may have been a supervisor who accepted recognition for the work that a subordinate performed. Or perhaps one person’s efforts were plagiarized by another person. For others, it may have been an idea, a design, or a solution that was credited to one individual but actually originated with someone else.
Now let’s take these examples one step further. Let’s say that someone begins to boast to others in taking credit for work that he or she did not do; work that was actually performed by someone else. Now let’s say that the “someone else” involved is you. How would you feel if someone began to boast to others in accepting recognition for your work?
You see, its easy to understand that its wrong for one person to take credit for another person’s work- and this should enable us to appreciate God’s sovereign decision to choose “…the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong” (RV). In doing so, God serves to ensure that no mere human being will ever be able to accept the honor and recognition for His efforts, as well as discrediting the opinions of those who consider the belief in His existence to be naive, primitive, or foolish.
“But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord'” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
This short passage provides us with a number of important concepts that are related to our relationship with Christ, things that God graciously extends to those who are “in Christ Jesus.” For example…
wisdom from God. As used within the Old Testament, the idea of “wisdom” refers to skill or mastery in the art of living in accordance with God’s expectations. (1) Later on in the New Testament, the concept of wisdom is associated with things like intelligence, skill, discretion, and a knowledge of diverse matters. (2) With this in mind, we can say that wisdom refers to a proper understanding of what to do with the facts. It also implies the use of good judgment in the application of knowledge- and there can be no greater wisdom than that which is offered by “…Jesus (who) has become our wisdom sent from God” (GW).
righteousness. A person who is righteous is someone who is in right standing with God. The Scriptures tell us that those who accept Christ’s sacrificial death are declared to be “righteous” (or “without guilt”) in God’s sight (see Romans 4:5-8). Furthermore, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed (or transferred) to those who accept His sacrifice on their behalf according to the verses quoted above (see also Philippians 3:8-9).
sanctification. The word sanctification refers to “the act or process by which people or things are cleansed and dedicated to God...” (3) This word is also associated with the idea of a person who is separated or set apart to God as we read earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:2. The end result of sanctification is holiness, or God-like character.
redemption. The Biblical concept of “redemption” may be different than the one we may be familiar with today. You see, while the type of redemption employed by credit card reward plans and other consumer loyalty programs is built on the idea of an exchange, the Biblical concept of redemption means, “to ransom… rescue, (or) deliver.” (4) Christ is our redemption for He delivers us from our separation from God (Galatians 4:4-5).
It is for these reasons that one source has been moved to observe, “All we are, and all we have—if it is of any value at all in the scale of eternity—is given us by our Creator and Savior Jesus Christ. ‘In [Him] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3)'” (5)
(1) chakam OT:2450 from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) sophia G4678 Thayer’s Greek Definitions
(3) New Dictionary of Theology, [Leicester/ Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1988) pg. 613
(4) padah H6299 Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
(5) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes [ 1 Corinthians 1:30] http://www.icr.org/index.php?module=home&action=submitsearch&f_submit=Search&f_context_any=any§ion=bible&f_search_type=bible&f_keyword_any=1%20Corinthians+1:30
“It is God who has made you part of Christ Jesus. And Christ has become for us wisdom from God. He is the reason we are right with God and pure enough to be in his presence. Christ is the one who set us free from sin. So, as the Scriptures say, ‘Whoever boasts should boast only about the Lord'” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ERV).
1 Corinthians chapter one helps establish a foundation for all that the Apostle Paul will go on to say in the remaining portions of this letter. One aspect of this foundation is the idea that there is a significant difference between a Biblical and non-Biblical worldview- and the way in which we view human leadership, human philosophy, and human relationships must be seen in light of that reality.
One source provides us with a good perspective for use in understanding this fundamental premise…
“Is Christianity against rational thinking? Christians clearly do believe in using their minds to weigh the evidence and make wise choices. Paul is declaring that no amount of human knowledge can replace or bypass Christ’s work on the cross. If it could, Christ would be accessible only to the intellectually gifted and well educated and not to ordinary people or to children.” (1)
The issue is that human philosophy (no matter how logical, practical, or sensible it may seem to be), is ineffective in addressing the human need for salvation. One explanation for this can be found in the fact that human wisdom often has other priorities; the exaltation of self, the promotion of individual intellect, and pride, all of which serve to invalidate any human initiative from God’s perspective.
This contrast between human and divine wisdom is so stark that Paul is moved to make a rather startling comparison: “…the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). In other words, something that may seem to represent the “foolishness of God” from a human perspective still reflects a greater degree of wisdom than anything that imperfect human beings may propose.
One commentator sums up this thought for us in the following manner…
“Not only is the message of the cross foolishness to the perishing (1 Cor. 1:18), God uses those who would commonly be considered foolish, weak, and of no consequence to convey that message. An illustration of this truth was their own church group, which did not include many wise, mighty, or noble (1 Cor. 1:26). God’s purpose is to exclude all boasting in self (1 Cor. 1:29).” (2)
(1) Life Application Study Bible 1 Corinthians 1:27 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
(2) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell, Ryrie Study Notes [1 Corinthians 1:26-31] © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp