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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
1 Corinthians 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-31

Chapter 1

AN APOSTOLIC INTRODUCTION (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)

1:1-3 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and Sosthenes, our brother, write this letter to the Church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus, to those who have been called to be God's dedicated people in the company of those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus--their Lord and ours. Grace be to you and peace from God, our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the first ten verses of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians the name of Jesus Christ occurs no fewer than ten times. This was going to be a difficult letter for it was going to deal with a difficult situation, and in such a situation Paul's first and repeated thought was of Jesus Christ. Sometimes in the Church we try to deal with a difficult situation by means of a book of laws and in the spirit of human justice; sometimes in our own affairs we try to deal with a difficult situation in our own mental and spiritual power. Paul did none of these things; to his difficult situation he took Jesus Christ, and it was in the light of the Cross of Christ and the love of Christ that he sought to deal with it.

This introduction tells us about two things.

(i) It tells us something about the Church. Paul speaks of The Church of God which is at Corinth. It was not the Church of Corinth; it was the Church of God. To Paul, wherever an individual congregation might be, it was a part of the one Church of God. He would not have spoken of the Church of Scotland or the Church of England; he would not have given the Church a local designation; still less would he have identified the congregation by the particular communion or sect to which it belonged. To him the Church was the Church of God. If we thought of the Church in that way we might well remember more of the reality which unites us and less of the local differences which divide us.

(ii) This passage tells us something about the individual Christian. Paul says three things about him.

(a) He is consecrated in Jesus Christ. The verb to consecrate (hagiazo, Greek #37) means to set a place apart for God, to make it holy, by the offering of a sacrifice upon it. The Christian has been consecrated to God by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be one for whom Christ died and to know it, and to realize that that sacrifice in a very special way makes us belong to God.

(b) He describes the Christians as those who have been called to be God's dedicated people. We have translated one single Greek word by this whole phrase. The word is hagios, which the King James Version translates saints. Nowadays that does not paint the right picture to us. Hagios (Greek #40) describes a thing or a person that has been devoted to the possession and the service of God. It is the word by which to describe a temple or a sacrifice which has been marked out for God. Now, if a person has been marked out as specially belonging to God, he must show himself to be fit in life and in character for that service. That is how hagios comes to mean holy, saintly.

But the root idea of the word is separation. A person who is hagios (Greek #40) is different from others because he has been separated from the ordinary run in order specially to belong to God. This was the adjective by which the Jews described themselves; they were the hagios (Greek #40) laos (Greek #2992), the holy people, the nation which was quite different from other peoples because they in a special way belonged to God and were set apart for his service. When Paul calls the Christian hagios (Greek #40) he means that he is different from other men because he specially belongs to God and to God's service. And that difference is not to be marked by withdrawal from ordinary life, but by showing there a quality which will mark him out.

(e) Paul addresses his letter to those who have been called in the company of those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord. The Christian is called into a community whose boundaries include all earth and all heaven. It would be greatly to our good if sometimes we lifted our eyes beyond our own little circle and thought of ourselves as part of the Church of God which is as wide as the world.

(iii) This passage tells us something about Jesus Christ. Paul speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ, and then, as it were, he corrects himself and adds their Lord and ours. No man, no Church, has exclusive possession of Jesus Christ. He is our Lord but he is also the Lord of all men. It is the amazing wonder of Christianity that all men possess all the love of Jesus Christ, that "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."

THE NECESSITY OF THANKSGIVING (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)

1:4-9 Always I thank my God for you, for the grace of God which has been given to you in Christ Jesus. I have good reason to do so, because in him you have been enriched in everything, in every form of speech and in every form of knowledge, inasmuch as what we promised you that Christ could do for his people has been proved to be true in you. The result is that there is no spiritual gift in which you lag behind, while you eagerly wait for the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will keep you secure right to the end so that no one will be able to impeach you in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. You can rely on God, by whom you were called to share the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this passage of thanksgiving three things stand out.

(i) There is the promise which came true. When Paul preached Christianity to the Corinthians he told them that Christ could do certain things for them, and now he proudly claims that all that he pledged that Christ could do has come true. A missionary told one of the ancient Pictish kings, "If you will accept Christ, you will find wonder upon wonder--and every one of them true." In the last analysis we cannot argue a man into Christianity; we can only say to him, "Try it and see what happens," in the certainty that, if he does, the claims we make for it will all come true.

(ii) There is the gift which has been given. Paul here uses a favourite word of his. It is charisma (Greek #5486), which means a gift freely given to a man, a gift which he did not deserve and which he could never by himself have earned. This gift of God, as Paul saw it, comes in two ways.

(a) Salvation is the charisma of God. To enter into a right relationship with God is something which a man could never achieve himself. It is an unearned gift, coming from the sheer generosity of the love of God. (compare Romans 6:23).

(b) It gives a man whatever special gifts he may possess and whatever special equipment he may have for life. (1 Corinthians 12:4-10; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 4:10). If a man has the gift of speech or the gift of healing, if he has the gift of music or of any art, if he has a craftsman's gifts upon his hands, all these are gifts from God. If we fully realized that, it would bring a new atmosphere and character into life. Such skills as we possess are not our own achievement, they are gifts from God, and, therefore, they are held in trust. They are not to be used as we want to use them but as God wants us to use them; not for our profit or prestige but for the glory of God and the good of men.

(iii) There is the ultimate end. In the Old Testament the phrase, The Day of the Lord, keeps recurring. It was the day when the Jews expected God to break directly into history, the day when the old world would be wiped out and the new world born, the day when all men would be judged. The Christians took over this idea, only they took The Day of the Lord in the sense of The Day of the Lord Jesus, and regarded it as the day on which Jesus would come back in all his power and glory.

That indeed would be a day of judgment. Caedmon, the old English poet, drew a picture in one of his poems about the day of judgment. He imagined the Cross set in the midst of the world; and from the Cross there streamed a strange light which had a penetrating X-ray quality about it and stripped the disguises from things and showed them as they were. It is Paul's belief that when the ultimate judgment comes the man who is in Christ can meet even it unafraid because he will be clothed not in his own merits but in the merits of Christ so that none will be able to impeach him.

A DIVIDED CHURCH (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

1:10-17 Brothers, I urge you through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should make up your differences and that you should see to it that there may be no divisions among you, but that you should be knit together in the same mind and the same opinion. Brothers, it has become all too clear to me, from information that I have received from members of Chloe's household, that there are outbreaks of strife amongst you. What I mean is this--each of you is saying, "I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ." Has Christ been partitioned up? Was it Paul's name into which you were baptized? As things have turned out, I thank God that I baptized none of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized into my name. Now that I think of it, I baptized the household of Stephanas too. For the rest, I do not know if I baptized anyone else, for Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the good news, and that not with wisdom of speech, lest the Cross of Christ should be emptied of its effectiveness.

Paul begins the task of mending the situation which had arisen in the Church at Corinth. He was writing from Ephesus. Christian slaves who belonged to the establishment of a lady called Chloe had had occasion to visit Corinth and they had come back with a sorry tale of dissension and disunity.

Twice Paul addresses the Corinthians as brothers. As Beza, the old commentator said, "In that word too there lies hidden an argument." By the very use of the word Paul does two things. First, he softens the rebuke which is given, not as from a schoolmaster with a rod, but as from one who has no other emotion than love. Second, it should have shown them how wrong their dissensions and divisions were. They were brothers and they should have lived in brotherly love.

In trying to bring them together Paul uses two interesting phrases. He bids them to make up their differences. The phrase he uses is the regular one used of two hostile parties reaching agreement. He wishes them to be knit together, a medical word used of knitting together bones that have been fractured or joining together a joint that has been dislocated. The disunion is unnatural and must be cured for the sake of the health and efficiency of the body of the Church.

Paul identifies four parties in the Church at Corinth. They have not broken away from the Church; the divisions are as yet within it. The word he uses to describe them is schismata (Greek #4978), which is the word for rents in a garment. The Corinthian Church is in danger of becoming as unsightly as a torn garment. It is to be noted that the great figures of the Church who are named, Paul and Cephas and Apollos, had nothing to do with these divisions. There were no dissensions between them. Without their knowledge and without their consent their names had been appropriated by these Corinthian factions. It not infrequently happens that a man's so-called supporters are a bigger problem than his open enemies. Let us look at these parties and see if we can find out what they were standing for.

(i) There were those who claimed to belong to Paul. No doubt this was mainly a Gentile party. Paul had always preached the gospel of Christian freedom and the end of the law. It is most likely that this party were attempting to turn liberty into licence and using their new found Christianity as an excuse to do as they liked. Bultmann has said that the Christian indicative always brings the Christian imperative. They had forgotten that the indicative of the good news brought the imperative of the Christian ethic. They had forgotten that they were saved, not to be free to sin, but to be free not to sin.

(ii) There was the party who claimed to belong to Apollos. There is a brief character sketch of Apollos in Acts 18:24. He was a Jew from Alexandria, an eloquent man and well versed in the scriptures. Alexandria was the centre of intellectual activity. It was there that scholars had made a science of allegorizing the scriptures and finding the most recondite meanings in the simplest passages. Here is an example of the kind of thing they did. The Epistle of Barnabas, an Alexandrian work, argues from a comparison of Genesis 14:14 and Genesis 18:23 that Abraham had a household of 318 people whom he circumcised. The Greek for 18--the Greeks used letters as symbols for numbers--is iota followed by eta, which are the first two letters of the name Jesus; and the Greek for 300 is the letter tau, which is the shape of the Cross; therefore this old incident is a foretelling of the crucifixion of Jesus on his Cross! Alexandrian learning was full of that kind of thing. Further, the Alexandrians were enthusiasts for literary graces. They were in fact the people who intellectualized Christianity. Those who claimed to belong to Apollos were, no doubt, the intellectuals who were fast turning Christianity into a philosophy rather than a religion.

(iii) There were those who claimed to belong to Cephas. Cephas is the Jewish form of Peter's name. These were most likely Jews; and they sought to teach that a man must still observe the Jewish law. They were legalists who exalted law, and, by so doing, belittled grace.

(iv) There were those who claimed to belong to Christ. This may be one of two things. (a) There was absolutely no punctuation in Greek manuscripts and no space whatever between the words. This may well not describe a party at all. It may be the comment of Paul himself. Perhaps we ought to punctuate like this: "I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; I am of Cephas--but I belong to Christ." It may well be that this is Paul's own comment on the whole wretched situation. (b) If that is not so and this does describe a party, they must have been a small and rigid sect who claimed that they were the only true Christians in Corinth. Their real fault was not in saying that they belonged to Christ, but in acting as if Christ belonged to them. It may well describe a little, intolerant, self-righteous group.

It is not to be thought that Paul is belittling baptism. The people he did baptize were very special converts. Stephanas was probably the first convert of all (1 Corinthians 16:15); Crispus had once been no less than the ruler of the Jewish synagogue at Corinth (Acts 18:8); Gaius had probably been Paul's host (Romans 16:23). The point is this--baptism was into the name of Jesus.

That phrase in Greek implies the closest possible connection. To give money into a man's name was to pay it into his account. To sell a slave into a man's name was to give that slave into his undisputed possession. A soldier swore loyalty into the name of Caesar; he belonged absolutely to the Emperor. Into the name of implied utter possession. In Christianity it implied even more; it implied that the Christian was not only possessed by Christ but was in some strange way identified with him. All that Paul is saying is, "I am glad that I was so busy preaching, because if I had baptized it would have given some of you the excuse to say that you were baptized into my possession instead of into Christ's." He is not making little of baptism; he is simply glad that no act of his could be misconstrued as annexing men for himself and not for Christ.

It was Paul's claim that he set before men the Cross of Christ in its simplest terms. To decorate the story of the Cross with rhetoric and cleverness would have been to make men think more of the language than of the facts, more of the speaker than of the message. It was Paul's aim to set before men, not himself, but Christ in all his lonely grandeur.

STUMBLING-BLOCK TO THE JEWS & FOOLISHNESS TO THE GREEKS(1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

1:18-25 For the story of the Cross is foolishness to those who are on the way to destruction, but it is the power of God to those who are on the way to salvation. For it stands written, "I will wipe out the wisdom of the wise and I will bring to nothing the cleverness of the clever." Where is the wise? Where is the expert in the law? Where is the man who debates about this world's wisdom? Did not God render foolish the wisdom of this world? For when, in God's wisdom, the world for all its wisdom did not know God, it pleased God to save those who believe by, what men would call, the foolishness of the Christian message. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks search for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ upon his Cross; to the Jews a stumbling-block, to the Greeks a thing of foolishness; but to those who have been 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.

Both to the cultured Greek and to the pious Jew the story that Christianity had to tell sounded like the sheerest folly. Paul begins by making free use of two quotations from Isaiah (Isaiah 29:14; Isaiah 33:18) to show how mere human wisdom is bound to fail. He cites the undeniable fact that for all its wisdom the world had never found God and was still blindly and gropingly seeking him. That very search was designed by God to show men their own helplessness and so to prepare the way for the acceptance of him who is the one true way:

What then was this Christian message? If we study the four great sermons in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:14-39; Acts 3:12-26; Acts 4:8-12; Acts 10:36-43) we find that there are certain constant elements in the Christian preaching. (i) There is the claim that the great promised time of God has come. (ii) There is a summary of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (iii) There is a claim that all this was the fulfilment of prophecy. (iv) There is the assertion that Jesus will come again. (v) There is an urgent invitation to men to repent and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

(i) To the Jews that message was a stumbling-block. There were two reasons.

(a) To them it was incredible that one who had ended life upon a cross could possibly be God's Chosen One. They pointed to their own law which unmistakably said, "He that is hanged is accursed by God." (Deuteronomy 21:23). To the Jew the fact of the crucifixion, so far from proving that Jesus was the Son of God, disproved it finally. It may seem extraordinary, but even with Isaiah 53:1-12 before their eyes, the Jews had never dreamed of a suffering Messiah. The Cross to the Jew was and is an insuperable barrier to belief in Jesus.

(b) The Jew sought for signs. When the golden age of God came he looked for startling happenings. This very time during which Paul was writing produced a crop of false Messiahs, and all of them had beguiled the people into accepting them by the promise of wonders. In A.D. 45 a man called Theudas had emerged. He had persuaded thousands of the people to abandon their homes and follow him out to the Jordan, by promising that, at his word of command, the Jordan would divide and he would lead them dryshod across. In A.D. 54 a man from Egypt arrived in Jerusalem, claiming to be the Prophet. He persuaded thirty thousand people to follow him out to the Mount of Olives by promising that at his word of command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down. That was the kind of thing that the Jews were looking for. In Jesus they saw one who was meek and lowly, one who deliberately avoided the spectacular, one who served and who ended on a Cross--and it seemed to them an impossible picture of the Chosen One of God.

(ii) To the Greeks the message was foolishness. Again there were two reasons.

(a) To the Greek idea the first characteristic of God was apatheia (compare Greek #3806). That word means more than apathy; it means total inability to feel. The Greeks argued that if God can feel joy or sorrow or anger or grief it means that some man has for that moment influenced God and is therefore greater than he. So, they went on to argue, it follows that God must be incapable of all feeling so that none may ever affect him. A God who suffered was to the Greeks a contradiction in terms.

They went further. Plutarch declared that it was an insult to God to involve him in human affairs. God of necessity was utterly detached. The very idea of incarnation, of God becoming a man, was revolting to the Greek mind. Augustine, who was a very great scholar long before he became a Christian, could say that in the Greek philosophers he found a parallel to almost all the teaching of Christianity; but one thing, he said, he never found, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Celsus, who attacked the Christians with such vigour towards the end of the second century A.D., wrote, "God is good and beautiful and happy and is in that which is most beautiful and best. If then 'He descends to men' it involves change for him, and change from good to bad, from beautiful to ugly, from happiness to unhappiness, from what is best to what is worst. Who would choose such a change? For mortality it is only nature to alter and be changed; but for the immortal to abide the same forever. God would never accept such a change." To the thinking Greek the incarnation was a total impossibility. To people who thought like that it was incredible that one who had suffered as Jesus had suffered could possibly be the Son of God.

(b) The Greek sought wisdom. Originally the Greek word sophist (compare Greek #4678) meant a wise man in the good sense; but it came to mean a man with a clever mind and cunning tongue, a mental acrobat, a man who with glittering and persuasive rhetoric could make the worse appear the better reason. It meant a man who would spend endless hours discussing hair-splitting trifles, a man who had no real interest in solutions but who simply gloried in the stimulus of "the mental hike." Dio Chrysostom describes the Greek wise men. "They croak like frogs in a marsh; they are the most wretched of men, because, though ignorant, they think themselves wise; they are like peacocks, showing off their reputation and the number of their pupils as peacocks do their tails."

It is impossible to exaggerate the almost fantastic mastery that the silver-tongued rhetorician held in Greece. Plutarch says, "They made their voices sweet with musical cadences and modulations of tone and echoed resonances." They thought not of what they were saying, but of how they were saying it. Their thought might be poisonous so long as it was enveloped in honeyed words. Philostratus tells us that Adrian, the sophist, had such a reputation in Rome, that when his messenger appeared with a notice that he was to lecture, the senate emptied and even the people at the games abandoned them to flock to hear him.

Dio Chrysostom draws a picture of these so-called wise men and their competitions in Corinth itself at the Isthmian games. "You might hear many poor wretches of sophists, shouting and abusing each other, and their disciples, as they call them, squabbling; and many writers of books reading their stupid compositions, and many poets singing their poems, and many jugglers exhibiting their marvels, and many sooth-sayers giving the meaning of prodigies, and ten thousand rhetoricians twisting lawsuits, and no small number of traders driving their several trades." The Greeks were intoxicated with fine words; and to them the Christian preacher with his blunt message seemed a crude and uncultured figure, to be laughed at and ridiculed rather than to be listened to and respected.

It looked as if the Christian message had little chance of success against the background of Jewish or Greek life; but, as Paul said, "What looks like God's foolishness is wiser than men's wisdom; and what looks like God's weakness is stronger than men's strength."

THE GLORY OF THE SHAME (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

1:26-31 Brothers, just look at the way in which you have been called. You can see at once that not many wise men--by human standards--not many powerful men, not many high-born men have been called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise men; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the strong things and God has chosen the ignoble and the despised things of the world, yes, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things which are; and he did this so that no human being might be able to boast in the sight of God. It is through him that we are in Christ Jesus, who, for us, by God, was made wisdom and righteousness and consecration and deliverance, so that what stands written might come true in us. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Paul glories in the fact that, for the most part, the Church was composed of the simplest and the humblest people. We must never think that the early Church was entirely composed of slaves. Even in the New Testament we see that people from the highest ranks of society were becoming Christians. There was Dionysius at Athens (Acts 17:34); Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Crete (Acts 13:6-12); the noble ladies at Thessalonica and Beroea (Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12); Erastus, the city treasurer, probably of Corinth (Romans 16:23). In the time of Nero, Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, was martyred for her Christianity. In the time of Domitian, in the latter half of the first century, Flavius Clemens, the cousin of the Emperor himself, was martyred as a Christian. Towards the end of the second century Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan the Emperor, saying that the Christians came from every rank in society. But it remains true that the great mass of Christians were simple and humble folk.

Somewhere about the year A.D. 178 Celsus wrote one of the bitterest attacks upon Christianity that was ever written. It was precisely this appeal of Christianity to the common people that he ridiculed. He declared that the Christian point of view was, "Let no cultured person draw near, none wise, none sensible; for all that kind of thing we count evil; but if any man is ignorant, if any is wanting in sense and culture, if any is a fool let him come boldly." Of the Christians he wrote, "We see them in their own houses, wool dressers, cobblers and fullers, the most uneducated and vulgar persons." He said that the Christians were "like a swarm of bats--or ants creeping out of their nests--or frogs holding a symposium round a swamp--or worms in conventicle in a corner of mud."

It was precisely this that was the glory of Christianity. In the Empire there were sixty million slaves. In the eyes of the law a slave was a "living tool," a thing and not a person at all. A master could fling out an old slave as he could fling out an old spade or hoe. He could amuse himself by torturing his slaves; he could even kill them. For them there was no such thing as marriage; even their children belonged to the master, as the lambs of the fold belonged not to the sheep but to the shepherd. Christianity made people who were things into real men and women, more, into sons and daughters of God; it gave those who had no respect, their self-respect; it gave those who had no life, life eternal; it told men that, even if they did not matter to other men, they still mattered intensely to God. It told men who, in the eyes of the world were worthless, that, in the eyes of God they were worth the death of his only Son. Christianity was, and still is, the most uplifting thing in the whole universe.

The quotation with which Paul finishes this passage is from Jeremiah 9:23-24. As Bultmann put it, the one basic sin is self-assertion, or the desire for recognition. It is only when we realize that we can do nothing and that God can and will do everything that real religion begins. It is the amazing fact of life that it is the people who realize their own weakness and their own lack of wisdom, who in the end are strong and wise. It is the fact of experience that the man who thinks that he can take on life all by himself is certain in the end to make shipwreck.

We must note the four great things which Paul insists Christ is for us.

(i) He is wisdom. It is only in following him that we walk aright and only in listening to him that we hear the truth. He is the expert in life.

(ii) He is righteousness. In the writings of Paul righteousness always means a right relationship with God. Of our own efforts we can never achieve that. It is ours only by realizing through Jesus Christ that it comes not from what we can do for God, but from what he has done for us.

(iii) He is consecration. It is only in the presence of Christ that life can be what it ought to be. Epicurus used to tell his disciples, "Live as if Epicurus always saw you." There is no "as if" about our relationship to Christ. The Christian walks with him and only in that company can a man keep his garments unspotted from the world.

(iv) He is deliverance. Diogenes used to complain that men flocked to the oculist and to the dentist but never to the man (he meant the philosopher) who could cure their souls. Jesus Christ can deliver a man from past sin, from present helplessness, and from future fear. He is the emancipator from slavery to self and to sin.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/1-corinthians-1.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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