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1 Corinthians is the first of two letters that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of believers in Corinth. To start our study of this book, let’s take a moment to put ourselves in Paul’s well-traveled sandals.
What nation did Yahweh set apart in the Old Testament to give special revelations to about who He was and what He wanted? Israel. And what nation did Jesus reside in during His brief tour through earth in human form? Israel. It’s important to understand that the birth of the Christian Church was a very Jewish event. Christianity came out of Israel, and in her early years, the new Church had a very Jewish flavor. When you read through the New Testament epistles, you’re reading documents that were all written by Jewish men who were entrenched in their own cultural history.
Now while most Americans can’t even list off the names of all their country’s states nor remember the last five presidents in proper order, the Jews were much more in tune with their homeland’s historical heritage. The Jews were a very patriotic people, and they saw the world through a very biased lens. Israel was glorious in their minds, and the exaltation of Israel both on earth and in eternity was what they longed for. It’s hard for many Americans to identify with this, because we struggle with the concept of patriotism. Take the American soldier who has put his life on the line for this country and wants to deck anyone who speaks out against her, and you start to get a feel for how the Jews felt about Israel. Israel was awesome in the mind of her own citizens and they spent a lot of time pondering her history. So as you read through the New Testament epistles, you will find the Jewish writers throwing out many references to Israel’s past which would go over the heads of non-Jewish Christians. Whenever we find a letter that is riddled with Jewish references, that’s our clue that the author of that letter knew he was writing to a very Jewish audience. Because Christianity came out of Israel, many of the early Christians were Jews, and they quickly became dispersed throughout the Roman Empire as persecution abounded.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is going to throw in several quotations from the Old Testament and he’s going to make many references to Israel’s history with Yahweh. This tells us that the Christian church in Corinth had a heavily Jewish population. There could have also been non-Jews in the mix, but there had to be a lot of Jews for Paul to expect he would be understood. Paul prides himself on being culturally versatile—adjusting his customs and preaching to fit his cultural audience. In 1 Corinthians, he’s often talking as one Jew to another.
Paul is an evangelist, and evangelists feel a burning need to get the Gospel out to places where it hasn’t yet been preached. In his letter to the church in Rome he says:
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. (Rom. 15:20)
This is actually the wrong motivation to want to preach somewhere. A more mature evangelist would say, “I feel strongly called by God to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that’s what I must do, because pleasing Him is what I live for.” Instead Paul throws out this lame bit about not wanting to build on someone else’s foundation. Good grief, souls are not our personal property. Who cares what someone has been taught already? We should be reaching out to anyone God sends us to, not getting territorial about it. But contrary to what you’re taught in the Church today, Paul is not a model of spiritual maturity, so we’re going to find him saying a lot of foolish things in his letters.
Now we humans are a prideful lot and whenever God calls us to serve Him in some particular way, it’s very easy to start imagining we are indispensable to Him. Paul certainly falls into this trap and ends up drawing the ridiculous conclusion that the Holy Spirit simply can’t work without him. Also to the church in Rome he says:
How can people believe in Someone of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom. 10:14)
Here Paul is putting forth the obnoxious theory that apart from human preachers and teachers, souls could never learn the truth about who Christ is. Poppycock. The Holy Spirit is the One who illuminates our souls with truth and He hardly needs our help to get His work done. Paul is a very heady little fellow who considers himself to be “the man” when it comes to spreading the Good News about Christ throughout the vast Roman Empire. He often throws his status as the great apostle around in his letters, and we’ll be seeing a sample of that in his first letter to the Corinthians.
“If there’s an epistle, there’s a problem”—this is a good rule of thumb to bear in mind as you read through the New Testament. It’s also important to realize that no one in the Bible is talking to you. Each writer is speaking to a specific audience and he has specific motivations for writing. So in the Church when you’re taught to read passages of the Bible as if God or some human writer is speaking directly to you, you’re being taught foolishness. Certainly there are many principles in the Bible that you can apply in your personal walk. But when you read the Bible, you’re basically eavesdropping on conversations people are having with each other, and conversations God is having with people who lived centuries before you.
Now Paul probably wrote this letter during his third missionary journey which took place around AD 56-57. Paul had personally founded the church in Corinth back in AD 51-52 during an 18 month stay in the city. Corinth had been colonized by the Romans before Christ showed up on earth. It was in the ideal location for travel and trade: located on a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. It’s strategic position on trade routes resulted in great wealth. As the luxuries increased, so did the immorality, and Corinthians were known for flaunting their carnality. Temple prostitution was very popular in this city, which meant you went down to the temple to “worship” various gods through sex. We’ll find any way to justify jumping in the sack with strangers, won’t we?
Two things are prompting Paul to write to the Corinthians. First, they’ve recently written to him, and in their letter they asked him several questions which he will address beginning in chapter 7. Second, Paul has received some very negative reports about the Corinthians regarding division, rowdiness, and fornication. So it sounds to him like the church he started several years ago is in a serious nosedive. The purpose of this first letter is to try and drive these souls back on course. Let’s see how he does.
This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of Yahweh to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.
I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by Yahweh to be His own holy people. Yahweh made you holy in Christ Jesus, just as He did for all people everywhere who call on the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
May Yahweh our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. (1 Cor. 1:1-3)
We need to remember that Paul grew up under the Old Covenant, during which Yahweh claimed to be the only God in existence. Then Jesus showed up claiming to be God #2, and before He left the earth, He introduced the Holy Spirit as God #3. Previously the Jews had never heard of Jesus, and they’d viewed the Holy Spirit as an extension of Yahweh Himself. So this multiple God thing is new territory for Paul, and we’ll find him constantly distinguishing between Yahweh and Jesus.
Though Jesus is equal to Yahweh in every way, this is enormously difficult for Old Covenant Jews to grasp, so we’ll find them giving Yahweh an extra share of glory in their letters. Everything starts with Yahweh as far as they are concerned—they see Yahweh as the main Director of all God activities. Those of us who are used to downplaying Yahweh’s role in our salvation could benefit from noticing how the New Testament apostles emphasize Yahweh’s critical role in salvation. After all, Yahweh is the One who changed Covenants, Yahweh is the One who sent Jesus to die for us, and Yahweh is the One who has so generously decided to extend the boundaries of His grace so that salvation is now a permanent deal instead of something we can lose through persistent rebellion. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh never spoke of people being eternally accepted by Him from the moment they first came to Him. Instead, He taught that His acceptance was conditional. Those who sincerely sought Him were accepted as long as they continued to seek Him. But those who spiritually rebelled were cast out until they repented.
When Christ came, the rules changed. Christ said that once we were accepted by Him, we never had to fear being cast out again. Under this New Covenant, salvation is permanent, but Old Covenant Jews like Paul can’t quite get their minds around such a radical concept, so we find them putting out a lot of wrong teaching about how the New Covenant works.
Notice how in this greeting Paul refers to Christians as being called by Yahweh to be “His own holy people.” The concept of being “chosen” by Yahweh has been radically changed. Paul recognizes that it’s no longer just the Jews who Yahweh is calling, but all people. Of course in real life, it was always this way—Yahweh never intended for salvation to only be offered to one ethnic group. But Paul was taught from the crib that the Jews were Yahweh’s extra special favorites, while non-Jews were icky rejects, so we have to give him points for the inclusive language he uses in this greeting.
I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts He has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. I thank Yahweh because in Christ you have been made rich in every way, in all your speaking and in all your knowledge. The message about Christ has become firmly established in you and you have not failed to receive a single blessing as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yahweh is faithful; you were called by Him into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
Paul identifies his audience as Christians—those who belong to Christ Jesus. His very positive description of them is rather ironic given the negative reports he has received about them. How can he speak of these people being “blameless” in the day of Jesus when they’re steeped in willful rebellion? Well, we often find the apostles starting off on a high note in their letters before they get down to business.
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.”
Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, for now no one can say they were baptized in my name. (Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don’t remember baptizing anyone else.) (1 Cor. 1:10-16)
Paul is writing with fresh ink—he doesn’t have an eraser or a backspace key, so when he remembers about Stephanas, he has to stick that awkward line in after his claim of not baptizing anyone but Crispus and Gaius.
Now it would be refreshing if all believers took the attitude of following only their Creators, but in reality we do what the Corinthians are doing: we identify ourselves as fans of particular human teachers and preachers. Of course this leads to a carnal mess. Apollos and Peter are two other big names in the Church at this time, and some of the Corinthians are taking sides. There wouldn’t be anything to argue about if Paul, Apollos and Peter were all singing the same song, but different teachers have different viewpoints, and the Corinthians have found enough differences to make it worth breaking up into warring groups. Today we’ve taken this division thing to extremes, which is why we have more denominations in the Church than we can keep track of. Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, Lutherans—the list goes on and on. Everyone thinks their team is better than the others. Paul says all this arguing isn’t productive. He’s right, it’s not. But trying to keep arguments out of the Church is utterly impossible.
So why do we fight so much? Well, for one thing, we’re all maturing at different paces and in different orders. The Holy Spirit is intentionally withholding certain information from you that He’s teaching to your friend, and vice versa. There’s no getting away from the fact that God is making unity among us an unattainable goal by the way He runs His maturity program. When we are spiritually young, we fall into the same traps as young children who think they know more than their parents. We don’t understand what we don’t understand, and meanwhile we think we’re experts on the topics we’ve been introduced to by the Holy Spirit. Once you’re convinced that you’re right in your own mind, you’re naturally going to become intolerant of those who try to say you’re wrong. And once we add loyalty to God into the mix, things really get heated. There are those who find it extremely offensive to use grape juice instead of wine for Communion. Others think it is demonic to use instruments during the worship time. The problem with God-related subjects is that we get super-heated over the most trivial details. What should the order of service be? Should we go with hymns or contemporary music? Should we dress formally or casually? There is no way to keep everyone calm about these issues, for the Holy Spirit refuses to teach us all in the same order. We divide over stupid issues only to realize ten years down the line how carnal we were being, and by then it’s too late to go back and fix the damage.
The reality is that the Church will be a divided mess until the very end. Setting realistic expectations will help us avoid bitter disillusionment. If you’re personally hanging on to the dream of a unified Church, you need to let it go and focus on your own walk with God, for that is the only one you can do anything about.
For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect. (1 Cor. 1:17)
You can persuade an audience to believe almost anything if you use the right words. Here Paul says he doesn’t stoop to such manipulative tactics. He presents the Gospel plainly, and lets the power of God’s truth speak for itself.
Now if God has called you to teach, there’s nothing wrong with planning out what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. But you need to make sure the Holy Spirit is guiding that process, and that you’re not just trying to use your own human logic to convince people of a certain point. It’s not on us to persuade souls to believe in truth. Each soul is going to be judged by how they responded to the Holy Spirit’s direct convictions. As teachers, we will be judged by what our motivations were in teaching. Were we trying to impress people with our cleverness so that we could gain fans? Or were we focused on obeying God out of love for Him? God doesn’t need our help, and He finds it offensive when we try to “fix” His messages. There’s never anything wrong with God’s messages just as they are. Maybe we think they’re not “relevant” enough, but since when are we His judges? You need to say what God is telling you to say using the words and tone that He wants. If you think He’s missing the mark or putting it poorly, that’s because you can’t see the full picture. God always knows what He’s doing. We need to stop trying to improve Him and remember our place as mere servants.
For the message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction, but we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” [Isa. 29:14]
So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? Yahweh has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since Yahweh 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. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. (1 Cor. 1:18-23)
The important point here is that God is the only One who can make His truth sound correct to us. It’s very sobering to realize just how in control God is of your little brain. If He wants to keep you in spiritual darkness, it’s a very simple matter for Him to make right sound wrong and wrong sound right. Look at how many people in the world today ascribe to atheism, relativism, and the notion that we all randomly evolved from primordial slime. Such concepts are utterly ludicrous, yet many defend them as rock solid truths. When God is keeping you blind, it doesn’t matter how bright of a bulb someone shines in your face. You won’t see it. Spiritual illumination is a gift. The knowledge of who our Creators are and what They want from us is a gift. The Holy Spirit gives these gifts to us, and He can take them back again at any time. So we need to stay humble, and we need to cherish His gifts as the precious things that they are.
As a traveling evangelist, Paul has preached to Jewish and non-Jewish crowds. His personal observation is that the Jews want miracles to “prove” the validity of what he’s saying, while the Greeks want things to make logical sense. What irrelevant “proofs” do we Christians rely on today? “Where does it say that in the Bible? Show me chapter and verse.” Really? So you’re going to tell the Holy Spirit that He has to “prove” the truth of what He says to you? He certainly does not. God won’t take orders from us. His wisdom is a gift, and we need to receive it with open arms, trusting in Him alone to keep us on the right path.
But to those called by Yahweh to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when Yahweh called you. Instead, Yahweh chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. Yahweh chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the Presence of Yahweh. (1 Cor. 1:24-29)
God’s methods are filled with irony. Paul points out how most of these Christians used to be a bunch of nobodies in the world’s eyes, yet they were the ones Yahweh chose to illuminate with His truth. God enjoys glorifying Himself by constantly reversing our standards on us. So often the people we overlook and write off as having no potential end up being mightily used by God in this world. Even those of us who think we have it made end up realizing that all the things we were so proud of—our careers, our intelligence, our accomplishments, our wealth—have no eternal value whatsoever. It is only pleasing God that matters, and we must first bow down in submission to Him before He will accept us.
Yahweh has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit Yahweh made Christ to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with Yahweh; He made us pure and holy, and He freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “Let the one who boasts boast in Yahweh.” [Jer. 9:24] (1 Cor. 1:30-31)
Yahweh unites us with Christ and Christ unites us with Yahweh. Our Gods work as a unified team. Under the current Covenant, to be accepted by one of Them is to be accepted by all. Once we are accepted, we never need to fear being cast out thanks to the terms of Yahweh’s amazing New Covenant. What an awesome God.
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