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Friday, July 12th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 1

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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The Key to Unity: the Message of the Cross (1:18-3:4)

But we are getting ahead of our story. Here, as usual, Paul does not lay down a series of neat propositions. He talks around and around, coming back to his main point from various angles, and also going off on ideas which at first sight seem to have little to do with this problem of unity. On the contrary, when more closely examined, these ideas are not side issues. He is still in the orbit of his main thought. Further, even if these matters can be considered parentheses or postscripts, the fact is that Paul often puts his most important and striking remarks into these "asides."

He gets into the "Message of the Cross" this way: first he asks (with some sarcasm) if Paul was crucified for them; or if they had been baptized into the name of Paul. Then he remarks that actually he baptized few people in Corinth. (This does not mean he thought little of baptism, only that he was not interested in doing this himself in every case.) This leads him to say what he did do, namely, preach the gospel. That was what God had commissioned him to do; that was his business.

Verses 1-9


I Corinthians 1:1-9

Out of the thirteen letters usually attributed to Paul, nine of them begin much as this one does. Paul follows standard prac­tice of his time by opening his letter with his signature, so to speak, and after identifying himself, going on to give high com­pliments to his readers.

Paul’s introductions, however, always have a definitely Chris­tian tone, and he identifies himself these nine times as "an apostle" by the will of God. Paul had thought a great deal about what it meant to be an apostle, and in Corinthians he will go into some detail about it.

. Who is this Sosthenes who is named as co-writer of this letter? We know there was a Sosthenes in Corinth who was "ruler of the synagogue" when Paul was there the first time (Acts 18:17), and presumably no friend of Paul’s. Had he been converted, and is this the same man? No one knows. One wonders what part this Sosthenes, whoever he was, played in the writing of this letter.

The letter, then, comes from an apostle of Christ and his friend Sosthenes to the "church of God" in Corinth. Incidentally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not alone; there are also those "in every place" who call on the name of (worship) the same Lord.

In fact, we can pick up here three expressions which tell us something about what the Church is. (1) It is made up of "those sanctified in Christ Jesus." The reader will soon see that Paul did not mean to say "sinless." The Greek word means "set apart," "consecrated," "devoted." The Church consists of those who have been dedicated to Christ. (2) Almost the same idea is in the phrase "called to be saints." This word "called" is a signifi­cant one in Paul’s thought. It is his favorite word for the start of the Christian life. He means called not by some preacher but by the Spirit of God. The Church is composed of those whom God himself has called by name, God’s invited guests. God calls them to be sanctified, to be saints. The Church is composed of saints­-in-the-making, not of finished saints. (3) The Church is also the company of those everywhere who "call on the name of"—that is to say, worship—the Lord Jesus.

Notice that here, as in Romans and elsewhere, Paul associates Jesus Christ with God our Father as the source and giver of grace and peace.

The high praise that Paul gives these Corinthians does not fit them realistically, as the letter promptly shows. It is typical of most of Paul’s letters (Galatians being the one exception); yet it is not flattery. Paul looks at his people through bifocal glasses. With one lens he sees them as they are; with the other he sees them as they can become by the grace of God. How can people who have the grace of God in their lives, who are "enriched ... with .. . all knowledge . not lacking in any spiritual gift" —how can they commit the sins and blunders for which Paul proceeds to lay on them the lash of his condemnation? Either the writer is guilty of a glaring contradiction; or the "sins" he men­tions are not really sins when committed by people who have all knowledge and all spiritual gifts; or he does not mean to be taken literally when he talks of that knowledge and those gifts. Paul was too clear a thinker to make such an obvious contra­diction, and he was too sensitive about right and wrong to sup­pose (as some did then and have done since) that if a person is just "spiritual" enough, he cannot commit sin. So the best way to take this (and similar passages in most of his letters) is what was just now suggested: those high phrases point to what the intention of God is for these people, what they are called to be and become, rather than what they literally are at the present moment. Whatever we may think about this, Paul had no doubt that his Corinthian friends had received the grace of God, and he was grateful.

There is much here, as all through this letter, which cannot be noted for lack of space, but the thoughtful reader is invited to linger and meditate. For example, in verses 2-9, how many ways Paul has of describing the Christian life!

One point needs to be mentioned which comes up later on, and explains some difficulties we shall meet. The "revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" means what today is called the "Second Coming" of Christ. There is no question that Paul, at the time he wrote this letter, was expecting it at any time. His converts at Corinth were waiting "for the revealing"—in other words, they were looking for the Second Coming in their own time. Much of what Paul writes, especially on practical problems, stands on that underlying expectation of the soon-coming end of the Old Age and the beginning of the New.

Verses 10-17


I Corinthians 1:10--4:21
The Parties, the Partisans (1:10-17)

The first problem with which Paul deals is one which was left out of the letter to him. He has heard it only through "Chloe’s people." These are supposed to have been employees or slaves of Chloe, a wealthy woman of the Corinthian’ church. The story they brought was no rumor; there would have been no point in spreading a falsehood, for Paul was sure to find out the truth. The trouble was that the little church in Corinth was split three ways, and maybe four. There was no good reason for it, but the split was a fact. The parties named themselves for the different leaders they knew: Paul and Apollos and Cephas (the native name of Simon Peter). Actually these leaders had no sort of quarrel among themselves. True, they were quite different types, possibly not entirely congenial personally, for we never find them long together. Paul’s was the vigorous, restless, lawyer-type mind; he was a real "brain" devoted to the service of Christ. Apollos was an eloquent and rather philosophical kind of man, the sort that made a popular preacher then as now. Peter was the- only one of the three who had actually lived with Jesus of Nazareth for three years, and of course that would make him the favorite of many people. He made no pretensions of being a "brain," but had great qualities of leadership. Very likely the Jewish members of the congregation would consider him the Number One leader.

It is likely that there was a fourth party, the "Christ party" as they called themselves. Just as has often happened in Church his­tory since that time, someone starts a church which is a protest against all denominations, but it turns out to be only another denomination after all.

We cannot follow all the ins and outs of Paul’s treatment of this problem, but only the main lines of his approach to it. One thing should be said at the very beginning: Paul never solves any problem in a trivial way. He brings all problems into the light of God’s grace—which is a light that penetrates beneath the sur­face. If he had gone at the Corinthian church in a superficial sort of way, his letters would hardly have been treasured. But whether or not we have the same problems today (some we have with us yet, some not), what helps us is not so much the particular an­swer Paul arrives at for Corinth in the year A.D. 55, as the meth­ods and principles he uses, which are good for our problems in the twentieth century or any time.

The central truth which Paul brings to bear on the quarrels at Corinth is this: The Church is Christ’s Church. The Church is one because Christ is One. There is only one Savior, only one Name.

The point is that if the Corinthians will think more deeply about their faith they will see how absurd it is to think of any man as the foundation. Apollos and Peter and Paul are like work­men on a farm; but it is God’s farm, not theirs. They have differ­ent kinds of work. Paul the evangelist sows the seed; Apollos the teacher waters the crop. But it is as stupid to ask, Which is more important, Paul or Apollos? as it is to ask, Which is more important, to get the seed into the ground or to tend and water the growing plants?

Verses 18-31

God’s Power and Wisdom Contrasted with Man’s (1:18-31)

The message ("word") of the Cross is the power of God (1: 18); Christ crucified is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1:24), he is "our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctifi­cation and redemption" (1:30). That is the heart of this section (1:18-31).

We are so used to hearing this that we forget how shocking it sounded in Corinth in the mid-first century. The death of Jesus was an event which had occurred less than thirty years before this letter was written. Historically it was an execution of a "native" in a Roman province, by official order. The nature of the execution was such that every Roman thought of it as some­thing done only to slaves and barbarians. (Roman citizens and aristocrats sometimes got condemned to death, but they were beheaded, not crucified.) Every Jew believed that anyone killed in that manner was under the curse of God.

Yet here was Paul, preaching not only that this Jesus was God’s Son, and the Lord of all men, but that it was precisely Christ crucified who is God’s Word to us, that this execution was actually the effect and the revelation of the grace and love of the true God. This was a "stumbling-block to Jews"—and no won­der. They could welcome a conquering Messiah but not a de­feated one. They were eager for a king on a throne; but a man under a curse, a man on a cross, no. As for the Greeks, they could understand philosophy and high ideas, but their notion of God had no place for suffering in him. An executed peasant could not possibly stand for God or mean anything to cultivated men. Even if the sentence was an unjust one, to call such a man "Lord" was simply "folly to Gentiles."

Being himself a Jew, and educated in a Greek university, Paul knew just how Jews and Greeks (or Gentiles in general) would think about this. He knew how he used to think. So he draws these many contrasts between "the wisdom of the world" and "the folly of what we preach" (1:20-21); only the folly is not folly, it is the supreme wisdom of God. It is a "secret and hidden wisdom" (2:7) and not an obvious one. In the life—and death-story of a poor carpenter in an obscure corner of the world, God has written his divine wisdom.

In using these words "wisdom" and "power" over and over, Paul is far from thinking of the Christian life merely as a special kind of knowledge, or of the Christian as a kind of philosopher with special enlightenment. God has made Christ our "righteous­ness and sanctification and redemption" (1:30). These words re­fer to life in full dimensions, not to the mind alone. Paul else­where says, "For to me to live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21), and tells the Colossians that Christ "is our life" (Colossians 3:4). Here he says God is "the source of your life in Christ Jesus" (1:30). This sums up everything. But to one who reads the words for the first time they have a baffling sound. What can it mean to say Christ is our life, or that our life is "in" Christ?

At this point we may need some explanation if our twentieth-century minds are going to get anything out of Paul’s first-century thought. There is a kind of religion—going under many names, but underneath always the same—known as "mysticism." The essence of mysticism is that the worshiper becomes one with the God he worships (or so he claims). There is no longer an "I" and a "Thou"; there is a complete blending or welding or transfusion. In the Hindu varieties of mysticism the slogan is, "Thou art That"; in at least one American variety of it, the preacher will tell the people, "You are cells of God." The idea of salvation, or the goal of the worshiper, is to lose his personal consciousness and realize his oneness with the All that we call God—like a spray of foam sinking back into the sea. Now Paul has been accused of "Christ-mysticism"; that is to say, it is thought by some people that Paul would say everything the mystic says, only in place of "God" Paul puts "Christ." Paul does use language that lays him open to this suspicion. "Christ is our life" is precisely what a Christ-mystic (and there have been such) would say.

Nevertheless, Paul was not a Christ-mystic in that extreme sense. The reader is invited, as he reads through the Corinthian correspondence and other writings of Paul, to observe the great amount of evidence for three propositions:

Paul does speak of the unity between Christ and the Chris­tian, and among Christians, in very strong language (we find the same thought in John 15:1 and John 17). But-

For Paul, the individual never loses his individuality. I am always I, not somebody else, not Christ, not God. Paul never suggests that he ceases to be Paul, or wants to cease being Paul. His great emphasis on the will, on choice and decision, on respon­sibility to God, all support the statement that for Paul salvation, the goal of human existence at its highest, is not to lose identity but to be "transformed"—into the image of Christ, yes, but not literally into Christ.

3. Paul never identifies Christ, numerically, with any Chris­tian, or with the Church. Christ is intimately joined with the Christian, and is the Head of the Church; but Christ is never the same as the Christian or all Christians together.

So it is not quite fair to say that Paul is a "Christ-mystic." Nevertheless he does mean to say, and he says it in many ways, that Christ is the life of the Christian, or that the Christian’s life is "in Christ." That last phrase has often been called the center and main point of Paul’s conception of Christianity.

But a question must have occurred to the reader: What in the world has all this to do with the problem of quarrels in the church and how to get over them? In what way is the "word of the cross" (which for Paul is always the center of the truth about Christ) a key to Christian unity? It is quite simple: the Corin­thian church was beginning to split up because its members were thinking in terms of men, leaders, parties, slogans, personalities. If they will put Christ as center of their thoughts and aspirations, if they will realize how it is his life—not Paul’s nor Peter’s nor any other man’s—that flows into theirs and makes them over, then these quarrels will simply dry up and vanish.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-corinthians-1.html.
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