1 Corinthians 1:1-31

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Week 1

1 Corinthians 1:1-31 – Unity in the Body of Christ

By Harvey Edwards III

Introduction

In an insightful article from the December, 2019 issue of the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell catalogue some of the many ways that social media platforms take advantage of human pride to create profit for the platform, while doing great harm to our democracy. The article is entitled, “Why It Feels Like Everything Is Going Haywire,” (free on-line and highly recommended.) It begins by quoting James Madison writing in Federalist Paper #10, who was concerned about the power of factionalism, by which he meant partisanship that “inflamed men with mutual animosity” and made them less attentive to the common good. He hoped that though divisive leaders “may kindle a flame within their particular states,” they would “be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states” because of the vast size of the U.S. For good measure, our Founding Fathers wrote our Constitution to include multiple mechanisms for checking the effects of factionalism and encouraging rational deliberation, and so far—thankfully—the republic has endured.

            But the authors worry. There is no way that the effect of today’s social media could have been foreseen 240 years ago. What started out as a seemingly benign way to easily communicate and maintain friendships has evolved, and the result has not been pretty. The traditional way of interacting has always been one-on-one, where we learn how to recognize social cues, how and when to reveal our true selves to another person in vulnerable ways, and how to progress gradually towards common understanding, genuine friendship, and even intimacy. Through traditional, intergenerational relationships, we have received wisdom, we are rewarded with approval as we learn how to moderate our speech, and we learn how not to be tiresome and annoying. But social media has brought change. Now, via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms, we construct highly “curated” images of our ideal lives to post, so that others will see and approve, and our pride will be gratified; we say or show whatever strikes us as likely to generate “likes,” “retweets,” and “shares,” and then monitor the responses compulsively.  According to studies, each moral or emotional word increases its “virality” by 20%, whereas “indignant disagreement” actually doubles audience engagement, and thus we are incentivized towards divisive and harsh moral grandstanding. Even fairly passive engagement carries risk, and many a Christian pastor has found himself embroiled in an unwanted and incapacitating controversy, merely as a result of an impulsive click of the “like” button. Whereas the information that creates “wisdom” was once passed down in a highly filtered fashion from the older generations to the young, the stream of information that creates “wisdom” in today’s younger generations is minimally filtered and overwhelmingly made up of content obtained from screens within the last month, “including hourly political outrages and hot takes on political events.” Thus cultural hostility is inflamed, and the lessons and values accumulated by those who have lived before us are lost.

            To tame factionalism and destructive divisiveness; to reign in human pride and the strife it generates; to find wisdom, and effectively pass it on—these challenges are perhaps more difficult now than ever. Predictably, the Bible has something of value to teach us, and we would be well advised to listen if we wish to be salt and light in today’s world. In anticipation, we begin the study of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-31 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. Why do you think the Corinthians formed divisions among themselves?
  2. Do you see any of the same tendencies in churches today? What role does pride play?
  3. How do you address pride in your own life?
  4. As a practical matter, on a daily basis, how do you gain the wisdom to live your life?

Commentary

1:1-9 – Before we begin to study the content of this letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians, let’s look into a bit of background. Corinth at the time of Paul was a young city with an old history. It had existed for hundreds of years, and had been one of the largest and most influential cities in ancient Greece. It was strategically located on the narrow isthmus of land connecting the mainland of Greece with the large, southern Peloponnesian peninsula; and to avoid the risky, 200-mile sail around the southern tip of the peninsula, ships often portaged their goods across the 4-mile land bridge upon which Corinth was situated. Corinth came under Roman domination in 146 B.C., and was essentially destroyed in that war. However, it was soon rebuilt by Rome, and resettled over the next century by a multiplicity of ethnic groups including Romans, Greeks, Syrians, and Egyptians. By the time of Paul, it was economically wealthy, religiously diverse, sexually licentious, obsessed with philosophical wisdom, and numbered among the most influential cities in the Roman Empire.

Paul visited Corinth around 51 A.D., while on his second missionary journey. There he met a Jewish, Christ-worshipping couple named Priscilla and Aquila, who were also tent makers. Soon after arriving, he began preaching in the local synagogue, as was his custom, and was eventually joined by Silas and Timothy. After being expelled from the synagogue, along with the ruler of the synagogue Sosthenes, he began preaching out of the home of a God-fearing Gentile, Titius Justus. His preaching was successful, and the Corinthian church was founded. Paul remained with the church for one and a half years, and then he, along with Priscilla and Aquila, travelled to Ephesus.

In Paul’s absence, troubles began to afflict the Corinthian church. We learn from comments in Chapter 5 that Paul had attempted to address some of the problems with an earlier letter of instruction (not part of scripture), but it seems to have not been completely effective. Confusion, division, disorder, immorality, and pride continued to plague the fellowship. The troubled church wrote to Paul, asking primarily for clarification of certain doctrinal and practical matters. It’s likely that those who delivered the letter gave amplifying input regarding the considerable dysfunction of the fellowship, all of this leading to Paul writing from Ephesus this extensive letter to the Corinthian church, in hopes of getting her back on the right track.

            As Paul begins his letter, he identifies first himself—an apostle of Christ Jesus, and the author of the letter; then the endorser of his letter, Sosthenes, the former ruler of the Corinthian synagogue, beaten and driven out of the synagogue by other Corinthian Jews; and finally the recipients of the letter, the Corinthians, whom he refers to as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” He goes on to express how thankful he is that God has blessed them with grace, speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and will sustain them until the end, when they will be found “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Clearly, though the Corinthian church is made up largely of immature Christians whose errors of attitude and action are numerous, he considers them to be true brothers and sisters in Christ. And he desires less to condemn these brothers and sisters than he wants to improve their obedience and character through instruction and correction. This should be an encouragement to all of us who are incompletely sanctified and fail more often than we would wish; and a model to emulate for those more mature in the faith, who are sometimes called upon to issue correction—for the Lord is glorified both when sinners repent and when the justified reform.

1:10-17 – After affirming their inclusion in the body of Christ, Paul begins to address the issue of divisions in the church. He has heard of quarreling. After Paul’s time in Corinth, other teachers, either directly or indirectly, contributed to teaching the Corinthian church. These included at least Apollos and Cephas (Peter) in addition to Paul, either personally or through the teaching of those discipled by them. In the Greco-Roman tradition, it was common for students of philosophy or religion to proudly identify themselves as tightly bound to the particular teacher that discipled them, and that practice seems to have carried over into the Corinthian church. Thus, some in the church claimed to follow Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas, and some (with a real sense of superiority), Christ himself. Accordingly, a good thing (multiple godly teachers) was perverted into a bad thing (a cause of disunity and factionalism in the fellowship) simply by the persistence of a cultural habit, rooted in pride.

            Paul will not have it. Though he had earlier experienced some conflict with Peter, it had long since been resolved, and there is no evidence that there existed any rivalry with either Peter or Paul’s friend Apollos. As well, from what we can gather from other biblical sources, there is no evidence that any of these teachers had strayed into doctrinal error, for if they had, Paul has demonstrated that he would have no hesitation in confronting such error. He asks the rhetorical questions, “Is Christ divided?”—to which the obvious answer is no; and “was Paul crucified for you?”—again, emphatically no; and, “were you baptized in the name of Paul?”—no, no, no! And though it is certainly the aim of Paul to see as many come to Christ and be baptized as will believe, he asserts that he is thankful that he physically baptized only a few from the church himself—because, as Paul says, he was sent by the Lord not to glorify himself but to “preach the gospel.” He has no interest whatsoever in personal fame or in any endeavor other than making Jesus known—nor should they.

1:18-31 – Paul proceeds at this point to attack the basis of their factionalism, which was pride. Philosophy and rhetoric were in their heyday in the time of Paul, and traveling teachers even charged fees to hear them lecture in the public squares. To be considered learned and wise improved one’s status in society, and as people who had grown up in such a culture, the Corinthians had not yet thrown off these attitudes.

            But Paul has. And with the ferocity of a Derrick Henry stiff-arm, Paul launches into a comprehensive dismissal of the worldly wisdom that serves pride. Was the gospel shared “with words of eloquent wisdom?” No, for that would empty the cross of its power. God promises to “destroy the wisdom of the wise” and “thwart the discernment of the discerning.” God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world;” “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

            By this strong language, Paul establishes that pridefully attaching one’s self to any particular human teacher is an exercise in vanity. Human wisdom is absolutely powerless to answer the deepest, most pressing questions of life. The wisdom with the power to do so issues exclusively from the cross—it is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Paul preaches “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews” who cannot conceive of a tortured, bleeding, executed messiah; “folly to Gentiles” who considered crucifixion so crude that it was not even mentioned in polite society; “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Paul seems to be saying to the Corinthians, and to us, that as followers of Jesus, we are the recipients through Christ of an abundant variety of spiritual gifts, to be used not in service of our pride, but to build up the fellowship of the body. We are to use them thankfully and according to their intended purposes. We are to strive for unity with our Christian brothers and sisters, and if we find ourselves divided, it should not be out of self interest, pettiness, or pride but only over crucial, important doctrinal differences. And we should rejoice that, like the struggling Corinthians, we “are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

The Main Point

As Christ-followers being called out of a broken, sinful world, we are called into unity with each other and together into a progressive process of sanctification. The power to lead a Christ-centered, God-glorifying life comes not from any human wisdom, but from Jesus Christ himself, through what he accomplished on the cross.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Colossians 3:11 – Unity among the believers, Christ is all, and in all.
  • Proverbs 9:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
  • James 3:17 – Characteristics of the wisdom given by God.
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