1 Corinthians 1:1—2:16

Greeting vv1–3

In his greeting, Paul reminds the Corinthians that as an apostle who has been called by Jesus Christ, he has certain authority over them, and can demand obedience (9:1f, 15:8).

Question: What causes him to begin this letter in this way?

There were some in Corinth who were stirring up strife against Paul and his teaching, and so Paul reminds them from the beginning of his letter, that what he has to say to them comes directly from Jesus Christ; it is not a matter of Paul’s personal opinion.

When Christ called Paul to be an apostle, it was because it was the will of God, the Father. In his greeting Paul includes Sosthenes. Whether Sosthenes was the ruler of the synagogue mentioned in Acts 18:17, we don’t know, but if it is, he became a convert because Paul refers to him as ‘brother’.

Paul addresses himself to the ‘Church of God in Corinth’. The term he uses for Church is ‘ekklēsia’, which does not usually have a religious connotation. In Greek it can refer to any secular assembly of people such as we see at the riots in Ephesus (Acts 19:32, 41). However, he specifies the kind of gathering he is referring to, by saying that they are the ‘ekklēsia’ of God. They are not free to believe what they want to believe, or to do what they want to do. They belong to God. In the whole of his approach he is laying the foundations for what he will be saying to them in the rest of the letter. If they belong to God, they no longer belong to the world. Therefore, they need to understand the nature of the Christian life from God’s point of view.

As a congregation they are sanctified, and called to a life of holiness. Sanctified means, ‘set apart’. In the case of Christians, they are set apart for God and to live under His direction. They are to be holy, because God is holy.

Question: What does Paul mean when he says that he is writing to them together with all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord?

Some commentators say that he is including all the Christians everywhere. However, there is no indication that this letter is a circular. It is addressed specifically to the Church in Corinth, and deals with problems that existed specifically in Corinth.

To understand who Paul is referring to when he says that he is writing to all those … who call on the name of the Lord, we need to place the emphasis on the terms ‘sanctified’ and ‘called to be holy. In other words, Paul is underlining for the Corinthian Christians that they have been set apart for God and called to be holy, in the same way as all believers everywhere. This is what unites them in Christ with believers in other areas of the world. They are not to see themselves as having a different calling, or a different character. In expressing himself in this way, Paul is also laying the foundations for addressing the issue of unity among them.

Paul extends to them God’s grace and peace. This is what God has accomplished among them in Jesus Christ. ‘Grace’ is the way God acts towards sinful people who are incapable of rescuing themselves, and ‘peace’ or ‘shalom’ refers to the total well-being God brings about in the lives of those who accept His grace, and live in obedience to Him.

Thanksgiving vv4–9

Question: I find it amazing how Paul can thank God for the Corinthian Christians in the light of the problems that existed there!

With all its faults, the Christian community at Corinth must have been a big contrast to the pagan society in which they lived. But even in this thanksgiving, Paul says that it is the grace of God in Christ that has achieved this. This is not something they can boast about; it is the work of God from beginning to end—although, God is not finished with them yet.

Paul refers to two areas in which the Corinthian Christians prided themselves: the ability to speak well, and have special knowledge. These two areas are typically Greek in their emphasis. The Greeks regarded rhetoric and knowledge very highly, and this emphasis had entered the Christian Church in Corinth. In their case, certain changes in the way they viewed these strengths had taken place, because Paul could say that it was the grace of God that had enriched them in speech and knowledge.

Question: It is amazing how much of the world’s perspectives are sometimes allowed to creep into the life of the Christian Church without our awareness!

Even when these perspectives undergo a slight change through Christian influence, wrong emphases continue to create problems. Paul mentions these two areas because he is going to deal with these issues right from the beginning of his letter.

As a congregation, they were proof that the Gospel, as preached by Paul, had taken root in their lives. Now, they ‘don’t lack any spiritual gift’—the greatest gift being their salvation. ‘Spiritual gifts’ in Greek are ‘charismata’, with the root of the word being ‘karis’ or grace. Salvation is God’s gift of grace, and so are all the other gifts or blessings that flow to the believer as a result of the new relationship with God, through Christ. We need to take notice of the thought that they didn’t lack any spiritual gifts, and yet Paul says that he could not address them as spiritual people, because they were still acting in a worldly way—as little children, who hadn’t grown up. Spiritual gifts are no guarantee of spiritual maturity.

Yet, they were living in the light of Christ’s second coming! Even more than that, they were eagerly awaiting Christ’s return. Paul assures them that God will keep them safe and strong for that day, because He is the One who has called them into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ, and He is faithful. He will complete the work that He has begun in their lives.

News from Corinth—1:10–6:20

Wisdom and Division in the Church (1:10–4:21)


1–9: God has called them into fellowship (common union) with His Son Jesus Christ

1:10–17: Paul criticises them for allowing divisions
Paul did not preach to them with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1:18–25: Foolishness of the cross vs. human wisdom

1:26–31: Foolishness and weakness of the cross theme developed.
Therefore, let those who boast, boast in the Lord alone.

2:1–5: Paul’s approach to them was in weakness and fear, yet the power of God was present.

2:6–16: Contrast between human wisdom and God’s power is developed.
Constrast between discernment of spiritual and unspiritual people.

3:1–4: Paul characterises the Corinthians as carnal rather than as spiritual because of their party spirit. This leads Paul to compare himself and Apollos to servants of God involved in:

3:5–9a: God’s field
3:9b–15: God’s building
3:16–15: God’s temple

3:18–23: Paul recaps the foolishness of the wisdom of the world which leads to the foolishness of the boasting about their leaders.
There is a different way for Christians to assess the apostles.

4:6–13: Summarises his argument

4:14–21: Concludes: Exhorts the Corinthians to imitate the crucified attitude of the apostles.

The Corinthians had to bring their rivalries under the rule of the cross so that they can live in unity—in Christ.

Question: What do you mean by the ‘rule of the cross’?

The Cross in the life of the Christian means death to self-will, and readiness to do God’s will, in God’s way.

Presence of Division in the Church (1:10–17)

When Paul finishes telling them that God has brought them into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ, he introduces the next section with a strong BUT… The Corinthians had not understood the oneness into which that fellowship has brought them in Christ. They have allowed division to split them into groups that were in conflict with each other. Instead of reprimanding them for these divisions, Paul gently appeals to them, calling them ‘brothers’, a term he uses in this letter more than in any of his other letters. He appeals to them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a personal appeal. All of them claimed to belong to Christ, even if some of them thought they belonged to Christ more than the others. It is on the basis that they all belong to Christ that Paul appeals to them.

Divisions are not schisms; they are dissensions, or ‘cliques’. Different groups have their own loyalties and stick together, but have nothing to do with the others. They were still one Church because they all met together for Communion, but there was no unity to witness to the world of Christ’s ability to change them into a community that was different to the various interest groups that exist in secular society. Paul wanted them to be perfectly united, i.e. to be complete. A good illustration of this completeness would be a fishing net without any tears in it. Work was necessary to restore them, so that they would be ‘one in mind and thought’. There isn’t much difference between the two expressions. They had to be united in what they believed and how they expressed that belief.

Question: Who was this Chloe from whom Paul seemed to find out so much about the Corinthian church?

It is possible that Chloe was a woman from Ephesus who had some business interests in Corinth. When some of her household visited the Church in Corinth they became aware of sharp divisions among the members, and on returning to Ephesus had passed on the information to Paul as the apostle who had planted the Church there. For someone to become aware of Christians actually quarrelling, was not only destructive of the body of Christ, but a bad witness to the outside world. It is in the context of the Corinthian Church problem that Paul developed the concept of the Church as the ‘body of Christ’, as a way of illustrating:

    • the unity of the local Church
    •  the interdependence of its members
    •  the way Christ manifests Himself to the world.

The problem in Corinth was a failure to understand the role of various leaders who had been there to help them in the early stages of their Christian experience. Some clung to Paul probably as the one who had started the Church in Corinth. They saw themselves as loyal to the one who had introduced them to Christ. Others may have been caught up with Apollos’s teaching, or even personality. Some, possibly the Jewish element in Corinth, claimed to be loyal to Peter, whom they probably had never even met, but had heard that he was the leader of the original twelve apostles. Perhaps those who claimed to belong to Christ were sick-and-tired of the other groups, and said that they simply belonged to Christ. Nevertheless, they were still a clique of their own. Paul did not criticise the leaders, because they had all done the Lord’s work among the Corinthians. It was the people’s attitude to the leaders that led to the divisions.

Paul then breaks out in an exclamation, Is Christ divided? The expression really means has Christ been divided up, and parts of him given to the various groups? Of course not! Christ is one, and the Church which is his body, must be seen as one.

Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul? In expressing himself in this way, Paul is getting to the heart of their problem. It is Christ who is to be the centre of their lives. It is he who died to make it possible for them to be regarded as the children of God. Crucifixion and baptism are tied together in Paul’s understanding. A person’s baptism was into the death of Christ. No longer were they to live as they used to live. Baptism spelled the end of the old life where their understanding and behaviour were shaped by their past. Now all believers were part of the body of Christ—not the body that was Christ—but the body that belonged to Christ, and was to serve his purposes in the world.

They certainly were not baptised into Paul’s name! There was to be no mystical union between the baptised person and the person who baptised them.

Question: What does it mean to be baptised into someone’s name?

In the ancient world, the word name meant much more than it does to us today. It represented the whole of the person. To be baptised ‘into’ (‘eis’) implies entrance into fellowship and allegiance with that person. This could only happen between the baptised person and Christ himself.

Paul then says that he was not sent to baptise but to preach. One commentator says that Paul was sent to preach the Gospel, not to perform liturgical functions, I am not sure that that is what Paul means. We must keep in mind that in the Great Commission, Jesus told the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… That Commission was given to the Church, represented by the disciples. Baptism was not merely a liturgical function—it was integral to making disciples.

As a member of the Church, Paul’s role was to begin this process by preaching the Gospel. As the Church was formed in different places, the process of making disciples was to be continued by the Church. Many churches today have forgotten to do this, i.e. to make disciples. The Great Commission was not merely to bring people to some kind of decision. It included teaching believers to put into practice all that Jesus Christ had commanded his own disciples.

Some people in Corinth were obviously placing too much emphasis on human wisdom and eloquence. They had inherited this tendency from their pagan culture, but an emphasis on eloquence draws people to the preacher, not to the message.

Dr Stewart, a famous Scottish preacher told the story of a visit by another great preacher to his Church. As the people were filing out at the end of the service, one lady was asked what she thought of the sermon. She replied, ‘Oh, he was wonderful!’ But, when she was asked what he had said that had impressed her so much, she answered, ‘Far be it from me to understand such a great man!’

The central aspect of the Gospel message is the cross of Christ, and any approach that fails to communicate this, whether by the style of preaching, or by the substance of the preaching, misrepresents the Gospel.

Contrast between divine and worldly wisdom (1:18–2:5)

V18. The Cross totally confounds the wisdom of the world. It cannot understand it at all. Even many Christian Churches have been misrepresenting the significance of at times. No wonder the world fails to see the sense of it! Paul is explaining the contrast between the way people who are perishing understand it, and the way people who are being saved see it.

Question: Aren’t Christians people who are already saved? Why does Paul refer to them as those who are ‘being saved’?

Christians are people who have come into a saving experience of Christ, but they are also people who are being saved, because their ultimate salvation is still ahead of them. That is why their understanding is also limited, but they have begun to understand something of the power of God displayed in the Cross. The Cross is the place where Jesus Christ conquered the powers of sin, death and hell—everything that had bound people to a life of self-destruction and condemnation. That is the Gospel, or the good news. Human wisdom, on the other hand, cannot even begin to fathom the meaning of the Cross because it is committed to understanding life independently of God.

Paul uses a quote from the OT to show that this contrast has always existed. In fact, it began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected the wisdom and knowledge of God.

Question: Is there any difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’?

I think we can refer to ‘wisdom’ as general understanding of things, and ‘knowledge’ as understanding of more specific issues and directions.

Paul is emphasising the contrast between the two wisdoms in order to show the Corinthians that by their reliance on human wisdom they were in danger of emptying the message of the Cross of its significance and power. Because the Cross confounds people’s natural understanding, it can’t be explained using secular categories or concepts. To such people, it is foolishness.

The wise man, the scholar, the philosopher of any particular age comes and goes, and so does his wisdom. People like that are here today, gone tomorrow. That is the nature of human wisdom, human ideas, and human trends. God does not merely regard the wisdom of this world as foolish, but actually makes it foolish. The Christian church often forgets this when it looks to the social sciences for insights and guidance on how things should be done in the ministry of the church. This kind of wisdom doesn’t recognise God and his place in the world, so how can it be of help to the believer?

Salvation comes to people only one way: through the so-called foolishness of preaching. It comes to those who are prepared to believe this Gospel, or God’s way of bringing people into a right relationship with Himself.

V22. The Jews always looked for miraculour signs, as we saw in their approach to Jesus when they demanded special signs from him to prove that he was the Messiah. The Greeks, on the other hand, sought wisdom. The Jews had little time for speculative thinking. Their interests were practical. They wanted to see miracles as a demonstration of God’s power. Isn’t that what happened in their Exodus out of Egypt? Didn’t God demonstrate His power not only to the Egyptians, but even for the sake of the Israelites? To consider the Messiah as one who had to die was unthinkable! Didn’t their law state that the person who was hanged on a tree was cursed by God?

The Greeks, on the other hand, were totally absorbed with speculative philosophy. They would debate issues for the sake of debating. As a result, the person who won the debate was one who had mastered the art of debate, and persuasion. His rhetorical skills were well developed. Such a person was held in high esteem, even if he was the biggest scoundral under the sun. However, this kind of wisdom could not help them out of their human predicament.

In contrast to the emphases of Jews and Gentiles, God set forth Christ as a demonstration of his power and his wisdom. That which seemed utterly foolish to the Jews, and utterly weak to the Gentiles, was in fact a show of God’s wisdom and power to all who are called by God. We have to relate this verse to the last part of v21, i.e. to those who believe. In other words, the person who experiences salvation in Christ is the one who begins to understand both the wisdom and the power of God.

Had salvation been available only to the wise, there would have been no hope for those who are not intellectually gifted. The power of the cross is available to all who are prepared to humbly accept God’s way of salvation.

Question: Didn’t Jesus say that ‘many are called but few are chosen’? How does God choose whom to save?

God chooses those who are prepared to respond to His offer and His solution to the human problem. If we understand this, we won’t have any problems with the concept of predestination.

V25. In facing the cross, Jesus accepted the position of greatest vulnerability—death; and in so doing, conquered death. Only God could have achieved such an end. What wisdom, and what power!

V26. Paul reminds the Corinthians that when God called them, not many of them were wise, influential, or of noble birth, despite their boasting about the importance of worldly wisdom. When Paul continues in v27, he is no longer talking about people, but about qualities that God chose to work through, to bring to nothing the wisdom and power of this world. It is the weak things, the lowly things, the despised things, and things that the world regards as totally insignificant.

Question: Why has God chosen to do it this way?

So that no-one can boast about their salvation, or their Christian achievements. It is all due to the grace of God, and His power. Therefore, the glory must be His alone. [See Isa. 52:13 for a parallel prediction.]

V30. It is because of God’s wisdom and power worked out in the cross of Christ, that the Corinthians were now ‘in Christ’. The expression in Christ is Paul’s favourite way of describing believers and their relationship to Christ. It involves two aspects of that relationship:

  1. Christ is their life. In him they have the wisdom that comes from God. In other words, he is the One who defines for them all that is real in life.
  2. In him they have been made right with God (that is the meaning here of righteousness); they are made holy, and find redemption, both now and in the end. That is why, if they want to boast at all, they need to boast in the Lord.

In chapter 2:1, Paul emphasises that when he came to Corinth it was not with superior wisdom or superior eloquence. When he brought them the Gospel he was determined to present to them only what was central to that Gospel, i.e. Christ, and him crucified. In other words, Paul made no effort to make the Gospel more attractive. He knew that the Gospel is difficult to accept, and he refused to compromise by making it easier to understand. The work of persuasion and conversion had to belong to the Holy Spirit, or it would not last.

Paul reminds them that he came to them in the first place weak, fearful, and trembling.

Question: Isn’t is strange that such a strong, mature Christian as Paul should be afraid of the people to whom he has gone to minister?

Leon Morris says that this fear was not fear of men, but a fear that Paul might not discharge his duty before God in the way that he should. But, if we read the account in Acts 18:9–10, that is not the picture we see there. Paul was only human, and threats and opposition had an effect on him. That was perfectly normal. That is why the Lord tells him on more than one occasion, not to be afraid. We must not try to make Paul some kind of superman!

Paul continues to emphasise that his message and his preaching were not with wise and persuasive words. Perhaps there is not much of a difference between the message and the preaching, unless we see one as the content, and the other as the method of presentation. Paul is arguing against worldly wisdom and power. The content of a message contains the wisdom; and the way it is presented involves the power (of persuasion). If we use clever arguments, and eloquence as a way of persuading people, then if someone comes along with a better argument, and a more eloquent way of expressing his case, hearers are likely to change their minds. Paul was aware of the superficiality of this approach in seeking to bring people into a right relationship with God.

Instead, Paul’s approach had been to present the Gospel as it is, difficult to accept by both Jews and Greeks, but in the power of the Spirit of God it had done its transforming work in the lives of many Corinthians. It had brought about a faith in the hearers that did not rest on the clever arguments of the preacher, or his eloquence. The Corinthians had been persuaded of the truth of the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. All of this is laying the foundations for what Paul will be saying to them in the rest of the letter.

Divine Wisdom (2:6–16)

Up to this point Paul has been saying that the Gospel message and its messengers are despised by the so-called ‘wise’ and ‘great’ people of this world. But the Gospel message reveals the real wisdom. What we need to understand is that it isn’t a matter of alternate wisdoms that Paul is talking about, but the real wisdom as opposed to counterfeit wisdom. One has to do with reality, while the other is a substitute ‘reality’.

Perhaps we need to digress here for a moment and consider the origin of this problem. When Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God they enjoyed true wisdom. They understood life, and how to live life as it was meant to be. The moment they chose to depend on a wisdom that was independent of God, they lost the perspective on reality they once enjoyed. Wisdom that is independent of God is far short of true wisdom, for it lacks the perspective on life that can come only from God. This is the Garden of Eden problem that was working destructively in the Church in Corinth. It is the same issue that causes so many problems in the life of believers and Churches today. It has to be understood before it can be dealt with. If you can’t identify a problem, or understand it, you can’t do anything to resolve it successfully.

In rejecting man’s wisdom, Paul is not rejecting wisdom. In fact, the Greek text begins the sentence in v6, like this: Wisdom, we speak… even if the secular world fails to recognise it in what Paul had to say. This true wisdom is something for the spiritually mature.

Question: What are the qualities that make a person mature in Paul’s understanding?

Some commentators see the ‘mature’ as those who are prepared to accept the Gospel, and the ‘immature’ as those who have rejected it. However, because Paul tells them at the beginning of chapter 3, that he could address them only as mere children, I think that Paul is making the point that because they were so much in love with worldly wisdom, they had not grown up. In being proud about their wisdom, and seeing themselves as superior to others by their preoccupation with worldly wisdom, they were no more than mere children—immature. It is maturity to accept what God regards as wisdom, or as reality.

Paul is not against Christians using their God-given intelligence. As a gift of God, we would be remiss at best, and irresponsible at worst, not to use the brains God has entrusted to our stewardship. What Paul is against is the arrogance of those who think that they are in a position to stand in judgement on what God has revealed in His Word. God’s wisdom, and that of the world, and of those who align themselves with its pseudo-intelligence, are on completely different planes.

Paul continues to stress that the wisdom that the true messengers of the Gospel were communicating was not the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age. The world ‘rulers’ has sometimes been interpreted as the ‘demonic powers’, but the context does not allow for this interpretation for three reasons:

Throughout this passage the contrast has been between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the visible world around us.Paul goes on to say that the rulers of this world failed to understand God’s wisdom, demonstrated in Christ; otherwise they would not have crucified Him.These rulers crucified Jesus in ignorance of what they were really confronted with in Christ. The demons were not ignorant of who Jesus was.

Worldly wisdom, like the rulers of each age, pass away and come to nothing. Each age comes up with its own wisdom, only to find that the next generation rejects it and comes up with its wisdom.

No, says Paul, the wisdom we speak is not like that. It’s a secret wisdom that is not revealed to everybody, but it is a wisdom that God planned for us before time began. The glory that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden in fellowship with God was lost because of sin. In his letter to the Romans Paul says that all have sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God. Paul probably means that we continue to fail to experience the glory of a life in communion with God that was His intention for us before the Fall.

In v9 he tells the Corinthians that we cannot even begin to imagine what God has in store for us. In quoting Scripture, Paul sometimes uses a reference in a wider sense. Here, he obviously takes it from Isaiah 64:4 although some parts are from Psalm 31:20, and 65:17.

In v10, the Greek text placed the word ‘to us’ at the beginning of the sentence for emphasis. God has revealed His wisdom, not to the philosophers of this age, but to humble people who are prepared to accept what He has to say. This wisdom is revealed; therefore, no one can boast about being wiser than someone else. And it is revealed by the Spirit, who understands the depths of God—depths that cannot be fathomed by anyone else.

Paul then goes on to illustrate what he means through a human analogy. An outside person can have no way of knowing the thinking of another person; only the person’s own spirit has this kind of understanding. In the same way, no one can know what is in the mind of God, except His own Spirit. It is this Spirit that God has given to us to help us to understand what is in the mind of God. He has revealed God’s wisdom in the message He has given Paul and the other preachers of the Gospel. That is why their message is true.

V12. This truth has not come to them from the spirit of the world, or from worldly wisdom. It is not just someone’s opinion, or the teachings of one religion against another. When Paul refers to the world in this case, he uses the word ‘kosmos’ or universe, not ‘aiōn’ or age. This is not just the wisdom of the passing world. Instead, Paul is saying that the wisdom that he and the others have received has come to them through God’s Spirit. It is He who helps them to understand what God freely makes available to His people.

V13. The Spirit not only reveals God’s truth, but actually teaches them how to express this truth in words that are appropriate to this kind of truth. He helps them to combine ‘spiritual truths’ with ‘spiritual words’. While a Christian needs to use the most commonly understood words when explaining the Gospel to a non-Christian, human persuasion can never change a non-Christian’s attitude, or bring him or her to repentance.

V14. The person without the Spirit of God—or one who can only understand life from a material point of view—has no way of understanding spiritual truths. It is like asking a deaf person to evaluate a piece of music. Spiritual things can only be evaluated by those who have the Spirit of God. The Greek verb ‘anakrinō’ or ‘discerned’ is used by Paul 10x in 1 Corinthians, and nowhere else by him. It means ‘to scrutinise’, ‘to examine’, ‘to judge’, or ‘to estimate’—the kind of thing a lawyer would do prior to a court case, as he familiarises himself with the case. It is the spiritual man alone who is capable of seeing the truth of a situation. The person without the Spirit of God cannot begin to see the truth of an issue.

All of this is possible only because the believer has the Spirit of God within him. Paul uses a quotation from Isaiah 40:13 to reinforce the wisdom of the Spirit. In Isaiah the reference is to Yahweh, but Paul uses it to refer to the Spirit, who is the mind of Christ. When he concludes this section in v16 by saying we have the mind of Christ, he is referring to the believer having the Spirit who is the mind of Christ. This does not mean that the Christian now understands all truth, and has all wisdom; rather, he has the One who is capable of leading him into all truth. [See Jn.14:26; 16:13].