1 Corinthians

Chapter 1: Contention in the Church (1:1-17)

In his opening greeting to the Corinthians Paul introduces the theme which will dominate the remainder of the letter, that is, God has called the Corinthians to be his 'holy ones' (verses 1-3). To be sure, in the 'thanksgiving' he reassures them that through the gospel God has placed a firm foundation under their feet (verses 4-9). Yet there is much that needs their attention in terms of 'holiness'. To begin with, they are quarrelling among themselves as to their preferred minister – Paul, Apollos or Cephas/Peter. The super-spiritual ones say they belong to Christ, while others do not! (verses 10-17).

1. Greeting (1:1-3)

Letters then had a very simple format: A to B, greetings followed by the body of the letter. Such letters were more practical than ours today where we have to go to the end to find out the sender of the letter. First Corinthians is no mere personal letter, however. Paul says that he is 'called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God', which is pretty heavy. The sender is the 'official delegate of the Messiah, Jesus' and – note this carefully – he holds this office 'by the will of God'. The reader, past and present, ought to listen carefully.

By contrast, Sosthenes, the co-sender, is merely Paul's 'brother', a fellow-Christian who was with him at the time of writing. Lack of further identification suggests that Sosthenes was the former ruler of the synagogue of Corinth who was beaten up in the presence of Gallio the proconsul (Acts 18:17) and who must have been converted in the meantime and become a co-worker of Paul's in Ephesus. We know nothing further of this Sosthenes.

Paul's letter is addressed to 'the church of God' or more literally, 'God's assembly', which was 'in Corinth' (verse 2). Here the emphasis is on the 'gathered people of God' who have met together, for example, to remember Jesus' death in the Lord's Supper (11:17, 33) or for word ministry to one another as 'a whole church' (14:23). Usually the believers met in smaller house groups but they also met as a plenary assembly (11:18; 14:23), though we do not know whether this was weekly, monthly, or only occasionally. It was at such a gathering of the 'whole' Christian community in Corinth (in the house of Gaius? – Rom. 16:23) that the letter would have been read aloud to the people. (All reading was then aural and Bible writers wrote their words to be listened to; it was more like a cassette than our idea of a letter.)

The 'church' is a living 'body', as Paul will say later (12:12-27), not a dead institution or a lifeless pile of bricks. But this 'body' does not belongs to any local leader or minister but to God himself for he 'bought' the church and its individual members with the precious blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:19-20).

One of Paul's methods as a letter writer is to signal in his opening words an important theme or themes which will be developed throughout the letter. In this letter it is the theme of 'holiness' which is critical because of the unholiness of some of the Corinthian believers, both in their lovelessness and crass individualism within the congregation and their ongoing compromise with pagan idolatry and sexual practices in the wider community of pagan Corinth.

It has been a universal human failing throughout history to think of special places ('temples'), special people ('priests') and special times ('holy' days) as sacred. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the gathered people who are 'sanctified in Christ Jesus... called to be saints'. It is they who are 'set apart' in God's sight as his people because they belong to 'Christ Jesus'. But this 'sanctification' of status is accompanied by God's insistence (his 'call') that they also be, in practical terms, his 'saints' or 'holy ones'.

As Christians today God calls us to become and be by his strength what he mercifully sees us to be in Christ, that is, morally 'blameless' (1:8). This 'holiness' is not merely outward reverence, however, but practical obedience to God's revealed will. This will mean, on one hand, our separation from sexual impurity, false worship, lying and cheating (6:9-11), and on the other hand, our love of one another (13:1-13) and of the Lord Jesus (16:22; cf. Eph. 6:24). In short, God through his apostle, is calling us to a life of holiness. That, in a nutshell, is the message of Paul to the Corinthians and to us.

Paul also addresses his letter to 'all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours', a probable reference to other centres of Christian fellowship in the province of Achaia (cf. 2 Cor. 1:1). In passing, this implies that this letter will be copied for other churches, explaining how in time the letters of Paul were made available throughout all his churches (cf. Col. 4:16). Paul established churches in major cities like Corinth and Ephesus, with one of his aims being for local evangelists to establish a cluster of satellite churches in the region (Phil. 4:2-3; Col. 1:6-7). This was Paul's strategy for the rapid spread of the gospel.

It is evident from these opening words that these men and women of Corinth had been profoundly converted, even though as new believers some of their number continued to wrestle with various expressions of unholiness. Previously, as temple-going idolaters, they had worshipped 'many "gods" and many "lords'" (8:5-6). But now, through the gospel, they have come to acknowledge from their hearts, instead, Jesus as 'Christ' (that is, as 'king') and 'Lord' (that is, as a divine 'master') and the one true God as their own 'Father'. This is the experience of all true Christians in response to the faithful teaching of the gospel.

Paul concludes his opening formalities with the prayer that the readers may know the 'grace' and 'peace' from their Father and the Lord (verse 3). 'Grace' is God's unexpected and undeserved mercy shown in the death of Christ for our salvation (Eph. 2:8) which has made possible 'peace with God' (Rom. 5:1) and its consequence, the 'peace of God' in formerly troubled hearts (John 14:27; Phil. 4:7). The Corinthians in the assembly had come to know these blessings of 'grace and peace' in recent days through the preaching of the gospel by Paul and his colleagues (2 Cor. 1:19-22).

2. Paul's Thanksgiving for Them (1:4-9)

In Greek letters of that time a thanksgiving to the gods followed the opening address and greeting. Once again Paul follows that convention, though his thanksgiving is addressed to 'my God' (verse 4). In Paul's case it was no empty formality, however, but heartfelt. How could he forget the former evil lifestyle of so many of his readers (see on 6:11)? Previously they had attended the local temples for the worship of 'many gods and many lords' (8:5). As members of a port city like Corinth, with more than its share of rogues, many of Paul's readers had previously been involved in sexual immorality (both heterosexual and homosexual), thievery, drunkenness, loutishness and extortion (see on 6:9-10). But they had been converted from idolatry to the service of the living God and the risen Lord and they had turned their backs on sexual impurity and other moral wickedness (see on 6:11). This was no merely human moral turnaround, however, but one empowered by the grace of God, 'grace given to [them] in Christ Jesus.'

This 'grace of God' which had been 'given them' was no merely invisible thing. Rather it had been made evident in the life of the congregation in Christian 'speech' and 'knowledge' (verse 5). Here Paul is referring to 'gifts' of speaking like teaching, prophecy and 'speaking in tongues' which arise from their new 'knowledge', that is, of their 'Father' and their 'Lord'. This is not merely the activity of 'speaking' and 'knowing', however, but of what is 'spoken' and 'known,' the confession of the Lord Jesus Christ in contrast to their former worship of 'many gods and many lords' (see on 12:1-3). In other words, Paul is pointing to the manifest fact of their conversion from pagan idolatry, to the confession that 'Jesus is Lord' as expressed in the assembly in teaching, prophecy and 'different kinds of tongues' (see on 12:3-11).

Paul sees this 'speaking' and 'knowing' as a sign that his 'testimony about Christ' has been 'confirmed' in the life of their congregation in Corinth, 'placed under them as a firm foundation', as it were (verse 6). That 'testimony' was the gospel which he had preached in the city of Corinth. 'Testimony' was a witness' sworn evidence in a court, based on what he or she had seen and heard. In Paul's case it referred to the gospel which had come to him so personally on the road to Damascus. But the same principle applies to us. The gospel we give to others, whether as preachers or as individuals, must always be our testimony, words about things that are deeply true in our own experience. The light of the word of God must have shone in our hearts before we are able to shine it into the hearts of others (2 Cor. 4:5-6).

In their 'speaking' and 'knowing' the Corinthians did not fall behind any other church (verse 7). This is probably Paul's way of telling them that, in fact, they exceeded other churches in these things (cf. 2 Cor. 8:7). But while Paul genuinely wishes to encourage them, there is also an 'edge' to his words. What if their 'speaking' and 'knowing' were not matched by 'love' within their community of faith? As the letter proceeds it will become clear that this is precisely their problem (see on 8:1-3; 13:1-3).

Nonetheless, he encourages them in such 'speaking' and 'knowing' as they 'await the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ'. Right 'knowledge' and faithful 'speaking' will help sustain them as they, with others, look for the coming of Jesus. While Paul and his churches eagerly anticipated the return of Jesus, this was not something they thought would necessarily occur immediately. As he explains elsewhere, other events must first intervene, including the appearance of the mysterious 'man of lawlessness' (2 Thess. 2:3-4).

Mention of the return of Christ naturally prompts Paul to reassure the readers about their ongoing spiritual security. The Lord Jesus will continue to 'confirm' them, that is, 'place a solid floor under' them 'until the end' (verse 8). Bebaioun literally means 'to lay a foundation'. Therefore, let them be assured that in 'the day of the Lord' God will continue to hold them to be 'blameless', as indeed they are now already 'in Christ'.

Many hazards face Christians throughout their lives, as well as numerous temptations, not all of which are successfully resisted. Sin will be a present reality until the onset of the coming age. Until that time God's 'holy ones' will periodically succumb to unholy behaviour. Nothing could be clearer than this from the letters of Paul and the other apostles. Yet we are called to holiness in the knowledge of God's loving forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for us. By no means least is Paul's assurance given here that 'God is faithful' to us in spite of our many failures (10:13; 2 Cor. 1:18; cf. Deut. 7:9). In his grace God is always reliable, always true to his people (2 Thess. 2:13-14). Having 'called us into the fellowship of his Son' we may be assured that God will remain 'faithful' in 'keeping' us, enabling us to be 'more than conquerors' in whatever comes against us (Rom. 8:37; cf. 8:28-30).

Very striking, indeed, are Paul's words, '[God has] called us into fellowship with his Son' (verse 9). Through his word, the gospel, spoken by men and women, God 'calls' fellow humans 'into his Son', that is, into a relationship of faith in Christ in which we are 'reckoned' to be 'righteous' by God, reconciled to him, through the death and resurrection of Christ. This is as true for us as individuals, as it is for us as the family of faith, though it is easy enough to forget the latter. Not only the individual but also the church is 'in Christ'. Thus the church is 'the fellowship of his Son'. It is quite astonishing that this 'body' of people, unworthy as we more often than not are, should be called the 'sharers' or 'stakeholders' of or in the Son of God. Yet this is quite consistent with the Gospels, where we read of 'sinners' who clustered around Christ (cf. Luke 15:1-2), whose 'friend' he was (Matt. 11:19).

Historically and theologically, Paul's reference to Jesus as God's 'Son' in a letter written c. 55 is extraordinarily important. In recent times many have attempted to play down or even deny Jesus' deity, including, for example, the Jesus Seminar. They argue that Jesus was merely some kind of prophet or sage whose life and teaching may be bracketed with Socrates or Buddha as casting moral light on our path.

Paul's letters, however, are critical for two reasons. Firstly, as the earliest written part of the New Testament they speak of Jesus as 'the Son of God' who died for our sins and who was raised again (Gal. 1:1-4; 4:4; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). Galatians, Paul's earliest surviving letter, was written c. 48, a mere decade and a half after the life span of Jesus of Nazareth. Secondly, Paul quotes teaching from those who were apostles before him, which had been formulated in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection, on which he was dependent (see on 15:3-5). Paul did not invent these confessions. He was not the second founder of Christianity, as is often claimed. Rather, before his conversion he was a persecutor of earliest Christianity, seeking to 'destroy the church of God' and its 'faith' which were already in place (Gal. 1:13, 17, 23). Paul's innocent and passing reference here to Jesus as God's Son is powerful evidence of the truth of historic and orthodox Christianity.

In this 'thanksgiving' Paul, as a consummate pastor, has 'placed a floor under' his readers' feet, the sure foundation of God's faithfulness in calling them and keeping them. Certainly he will challenge them and rebuke them in what follows. But first let them be assured that they are secure in God's love and care.

3. 'Quarrels' in Corinth (1:10-17)

1. Factions (1:10-12)

Paul now introduces the body of the letter with his immediate and urgent concern for the unity of the church. In verses 10-12 Paul does three things: (1) he appeals to them to be united, (2) explaining that a report has come to him about contention in the church, which (3) he amplifies that 'each' member says he 'belongs' to Paul, or to Apollos, or to Cephas or to Christ.

Paul's 'I appeal' (parakalō, verse 10) is one of his favourite ministry words to his churches. It is not a military 'command' to be dumbly obeyed, but a warm encouragement to be acted on, that is, 'be united'. By this approach Paul, like a wise parent, puts before them (and us) an important principle of Christian behaviour, which is the need for unity within the congregation, but in such a way that its fulfilment will prove to be a 'growing experience' for the readers.

Nonetheless, his 'appeal' is 'through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ'. His invocation of that great 'name' signals how important the issue of the moment is. It amounts to this. They are 'all' to 'speak the same things', that is, about their core beliefs, rather than 'each saying I belong to' a, b or c. Paul is calling for unity in Christ in place of factious individualism. Here Paul uses a metaphor from clothing. There are to be no 'schisms' or ripping apart of the fabric of their community. Rather, they are to be 'knit together' in 'mind' and 'opinion' in the one garment. Interestingly, Paul's verb katartizo was used of the fishermen 'mending' their nets (Mark 1:19). Such a 'knit together' 'mind' and 'opinion' concerns their commonly held commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. It does not mean that Christians must have identical musical tastes or political loyalties. But they are to be so solidly united about Jesus that there will be no room for minister-based factions.

The report came from Corinth through members of Chloe's household (verse 11). This woman was so concerned about the 'quarrels' in the congregation that at some expense she sent associates or family members to inform Paul, a journey of several days across the Aegean Sea. The word 'household' (NIV) does not appear in the original Greek text, though it is a reasonable inference, indicating that Chloe was a woman of means, perhaps a trader. Her name given on its own suggests that she was a widow. The name 'Chloe' is drawn from Greek mythology and implies that she was not a Jewess, though she may have been a Gentile 'God-fearer' who had previously attended the synagogue in Corinth before her conversion to Christ. Her initiative in sending her people to Paul probably means that she was an early convert in Corinth and one who had valued Paul's ministry in the city three years earlier.

Paul expands on Chloe's report (verse 12). The 'quarrels' in the church were due to factionalism as the members identified themselves with the minister who had baptized them (see verses 14-16), whether Paul, Apollos or Cephas /Peter. Paul, the founding apostle, spent a year and a half in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18). Doubtless many members continued to look to his leadership. But it was now three years since he had left and in the meantime other ministers had visited the city. First came Apollos, the brilliant Jewish scholar and preacher from Alexandria (Acts 18:24-26) and he, too, had his admirers (cf. 16:12), most likely among the better educated members who prized rhetorical speechmaking. Next came Cephas/Peter, the spokesman of the Twelve and the leader for twenty years of the mission to the Jews in Palestine (Gal. 2:7-9; cf. Acts 1-5; 8:14-25; 9:32-11:18; 12:1-17; 15:6-11). This eminent leader doubtless had many supporters, especially, we imagine, among the Jews in the congregation.

Many members divided themselves into supporters of one or other of these leaders. Some, however, said they 'belonged to Christ'. This intriguing group may have been those we encounter later in the letter who prized 'spiritual gifts', in particular 'speaking in other tongues', which they may have claimed as coming to them from the risen Christ, setting them apart as an elite group (see on 4:7-8; 14:6-25, 36-37). It is possible we meet the same faction in the Second Letter as those who declare themselves to 'belong to Christ' but question whether Paul does (2 Cor. 10:7).

These words written so long ago continue to be painfully relevant. Churches and denominations continue to be hotbeds of factionalism. Members very readily cluster exclusively around one minister or elder against others, whether current or previous leaders of the congregation. And, it must be said, ministers themselves are not always innocent of cultivating factious support, to the division of the body of Christ.

2. Three Critical Questions (1:13-16)

Paul now fires three rhetorical questions at the Corinthians, each based on the foundation of the Christian church in Corinth. First, he asks, 'Is Christ divided up' among you? Later in the Letter Paul makes this striking statement:

For just as the body is one
and has many members,
and all the members of the body,
though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ (12:12, RSV).

The human body, though of many parts and organs, is a single entity. We expect Paul to say, 'So, too, is the church as the body of Christ, multi-membered yet one.' But to our surprise he says, 'So, too, is Christ.' 'Christ is multi-membered yet one.' In other words, Paul makes the astonishing statement that (somehow) Christ is the church. What does he mean? Paul is saying that, through his ascension, Christ is in heaven, no longer physically present on earth, but that by the Holy Spirit Christ is active in the church, the local 'body' of believers. Just as the church is now 'in Christ' in heaven (Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 3:1-3) so, too, Christ is now 'in the church' on earth. So let the Corinthians understand that Christ has not been 'parcelled out' only to some with obvious spiritual gifts (verse 13a). In the 'body' of the congregation Christ is co-terminous with all and belongs to all who belong to him.

Secondly, he asks, 'Was Paul crucified for you?' (verse 13b). How foolish even to ask the question! Only Christ was or could be crucified 'for' and 'in place of (hyper) his people. This question is as impossible as its predecessor, 'Is Christ divided up' and present with only some of you? Christ has died for all, belongs to all and is in all (cf. Col. 3:11). Only of God's Messiah, his Christ, could this be true. By contrast, Paul is merely his apostle, sent by him (verse 17), one of a number of his servants through whom they had come to believe (see on 3:5).

Paul's oblique reference to '[Christ] crucified' introduces a subject which was evidently an embarrassment to some within the church (see on 1:18-25). Suffice here to reflect that it was by that monstrous death that Christ provided 'for' the salvation of his people and indeed of all people at all times and places (2 Cor. 5:14-15,19).

His third question, 'Were you baptized into the name of Paul?' (verse 13c) must also be answered 'no'. Because Christ was 'crucified for you', only in Christ's 'name' could a believer be baptized. Certainly not in the name of the baptizer Paul who, as a matter of fact, had only baptized Crispus, Gaius and the members of the household of Stephanas from the total congregation.

These questions, with his assertion, 'Christ... sent me to preach the gospel,' are closely connected. Together they form a window through which we glimpse the initial missionary penetration of Paul in Corinth, and we suppose of other places as well. First, he preached the gospel, a message which focused on Christ crucified for their sins (see on 15:3). Then, as they received the gospel they were baptized 'in the name of Christ'. Third, baptism 'incorporated' them fully into the body of believers, notwithstanding the divergent nature of their ministry 'gifts'. The preaching of Christ crucified, the opened heart of faith expressed in submission to baptism in the name of Christ, followed by membership in his body, all belong together and provide an instructive pattern for the ongoing work of evangelism.

The names and associated details are also helpful for our understanding of Paul's mission work. The three persons he baptized were each significant in some way. Crispus was a Jew, in fact the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:8), and therefore a man of wealth and high standing. Gaius is mentioned in Romans 16:23 as '[Paul's] host and of the whole church' in Corinth (Romans was written from Corinth – cf. Acts 20:3). The book of Acts, however, says that Paul stayed with a 'God-fearer' named Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). Most likely this is one and the same man, a Roman whose full name was 'Gaius Titius Justus'. He, too, was a man of prominence whose home was sufficiently spacious to accommodate a meeting of the 'whole church'. Reference to the 'household of Stephanas,' with its implications of retainers and servants, also signals material prosperity. Indeed, this man's household were Paul's first converts in Achaia, and he has ministered materially to the saints in Corinth (see on 16:15). Stephanas, with his (probable) retainers Fortunatus and Achaicus (whose names 'Lucky' and 'Achaian' suggest that they were nicknamed slaves), have now visited Paul in Ephesus and are probably the bearers of this letter back to Corinth. These three, with Chloe (as noted above) and, for example, Erastus the director of city works (Rom. 16:23), give the impression that Paul found significant support among people of wealth in Corinth, though probably these were in a minority within the total congregation (see on 1:26).

3. Sent to Evangelize (1:17)

To return more directly to the passage, Paul insists that Christ did not send him to baptize but to evangelize. This is not to say that Paul dismisses the importance of baptizing but to insist that it is ancillary to his prior and overarching calling to proclaim the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Baptizing is entirely dependent on and subsidiary to preaching the gospel. That calling had come from Christ himself, an allusion to the encounter of the Risen One with the persecutor as he journeyed to Damascus (see on 9:1; 15:8-11; Gal. 1:15-17; Acts 26:15-18).

Paul now lays the groundwork for what he will say immediately about his evangelizing (1:18-2:5). In Paul's case it was not with words of wisdom, lest 'the cross of Christ' be emptied of its content. Something is in the wind here, about which from this distance we can only guess. It seems that the Corinthians had become interested in and diverted by somebody preaching with 'words of wisdom'. Most probably this person or persons had so preached as to place the spotlight on the speaker, rather than the message itself. Thus the attention of the hearer had been diverted from Christ crucified to the 'wise' preacher. But what can a preacher accomplish if he fails to draw attention to Christ? Nothing. Only one person could be crucified for others, for their forgiveness, and that person was the Messiah, Jesus.

Some questions for personal reflection:

1. Am I, perhaps, prone to thinking as an individual rather than as a member of the body of Christ? Am I and others at this time rather individualistic, as the Corinthians had been?

2. To what extent is my faith bound up in a particular minister? If that person was not my minister would it affect my relationship with Christ?