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Lecture 3―Ewald Seidel

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians

1 Corinthians 3:1―4:21

Review of lecture 2

In the second lecture we saw how Paul began to deal with the problem of division in the church, caused by the inclination of the Corinthian Christians to regard highly the wisdom of this world. He pointed out to them the difference between divine wisdom and worldly wisdom—God’s way of understanding reality, and the world’s so-called wisdom. In adopting the world’s way of thinking, they failed to understand the way the Christian life was to be worked out in the life of the Church. One of these problems was to misunderstand the role of leaders in the Church.

Misunderstanding the role of leaders (3:1–9)

In the first two chapters of the letter, Paul laid the foundations for what he wanted the Corinthian Christians to understand. Now he begins to deal with the problems that existed among them. Unless a person understands the fundamentals, he can’t understand where he is wrong, or what he needs to do about it.

If my calculations are correct, the Corinthian Church was planted 5-6 years prior to this letter. When Paul came to Corinth he stayed with Priscilla and Aquila who had been expelled from Rome in about 49 AD, together with all Jews by the decree of Emperor Claudius. The first letter to the Corinthians was written about 55 AD.

Question: When Paul says to them that he was not able to address them as mature Christians before, or now, what does he mean? Surely, he did not expect them to have been mature when he first brought the Gospel to them!

If we look at Acts 18:11, we will see that he stayed with them on that first occasion for a year and a half, teaching the word of God. When Silas and Timothy came to Corinth, probably with financial support, Paul devoted himself entirely to preaching and teaching. He spent a lot of time with them on that first occasion.

Both then, and now, says Paul, he has had to address them as mere infants in Christ. Sometimes there are cultural influences that Christians are reluctant to give up, that stop them from growing into mature believers. These cultural loyalties carry perspectives that are sometimes in conflict with the new Christian culture, new ways of thinking, new understanding, and new ways of behaviour.

God is shaping the Christian Church to show the rest of the world what true community should be like. That is why Paul is so concerned about the Church in Corinth; a Church that had its feet in two worlds— it belonged fully neither to one, nor to the other.

One of the symptoms of their spiritual immaturity was their divisiveness; a divisiveness based on a non-Christian view of the role of their leaders. Paul’s role among them was to introduce them to Christ through the Gospel that he preached to them. His task was to feed them on milk once they had come to know Christ for themselves. These basics, however, had to be understood and put into practice before they could be given more solid food — they had to be applied to their daily lives. To become a mature Christian is not a matter of just gaining more and more information.

Paul uses two different expressions of ‘worldly’ to describe the Corinthian believers. When he first preached to them, they were ‘sarkinos’ or ‘fleshy’. After 5-6 years, they were ‘sarkikos’ or ‘fleshly’. One commentator has explained the difference this way: ‘sarkinos’ is when a person is worldly, but cannot help it because he is a new believer; ‘sarkikos’, on the other hand, is when a person is ‘worldly’ after having had the opportunity to grow but has failed to do so. Therefore, he can be blamed for what he continues to be.

The Corinthians were continuing to be worldly by allowing jealousy and quarrelling to take place among them as individuals, and as a Church. Each group was claiming superiority on the basis of the leadership they claimed to follow.

V5. Paul tells them that the leaders God gave them over the last few years, had different roles in the Church’s growth and development. Each one was only a servant or agent in achieving what God wanted to do among them. One planted, another one watered, but who was it that made it all grow? Was it not God, without whom His servants could not have achieved anything? Each servant will be rewarded in due time, but the existence of the Christian Church in Corinth was the work of God, not of the servants who had served them over time. It is God they should be focusing on, not the workers. The workers were not jealous of each other, or quarrelling with each other. There was unity in what they sought to do; so, why should the believers be divided? Just as the workers are God’s, so is the Church; it is His field, His building.

As for the workers, Paul says, we are God’s fellow-workers, or ‘partners together for God’.

The foundation and the building (3:10–17)

Paul now turns from an agricultural image of the Church, to an architectural one. By the grace given to Paul, he laid the foundations of the Church in Corinth. Some of the translations of the word ‘grace’ miss the real point of the context here. In this case it has to do with the enabling God has given Paul. It was not something he had achieved with his own wisdom and effort. The grace given him enabled him to lay the foundations as a ‘master builder’, or ‘wise builder’. His wisdom and expertise came from God.

While Paul laid the foundations, others were involved in building up the Church. Paul warns everyone that they needed to be careful how they built on that foundation. This warning is not directed only to teachers, but to every member who is involved in the life and ministry of the Church.

Question: What exactly does Paul mean when he talks about building up the Church?

Some commentators refer to things like:

    • right teaching
    • maintaining correct doctrine
    • developing Christian character among its members, and so on.

I think it would be correct to say that, ‘right teaching leads to right worship, right behaviour, and right ministry’. Before he goes any further, Paul emphasises that the foundation of the Church must be exclusively Christ. He is to be central in the life and service of the Church. People do not have the right to substitute this focus with their own visions. For example, some Christians believe that the Church should advocate justice in society; some strongly advocate the need to be ecumenical; others are happy to keep it as a comfortable religious organisation; and so on.

When Paul says that Jesus Christ must be the exclusive foundation of the Christian Church, he is saying that Christ, his word and his will must dominate the life and ministry of the Church. The Church must reflect who Christ really is, and do what he wants done, and this cannot be reduced to some single vision, or allowed to become the pet cause of a small group within the Church who fail to understand the main message of the Bible.

Having said that, Paul knows that not everyone is going to contribute to the growth of the Church in a way that is profitable. The efforts of some people will contribute in a significant way, therefore their worth will be like gold, silver, and precious stones; while the efforts of others will be worthless—it will be like wood, hay, and straw. God takes people’s contributions very seriously, because there will be a day of judgement when everyone’s work will be evaluated, and shown for what it really is. Some will be rewarded for their efforts; the work of others will be burned up. This is not a judgement to separate the saved from the lost. It is a judgement of believers. Those whose efforts have been worthless will be saved—but only just.

Paul asks the Church, Don’t you know that as a congregation you are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God lives in, or among you? In this case Paul is not referring to individuals being the temple of God, but the Church as a whole being the temple of God. Addressing the whole Church is another proof that his warning about how they build is not directed only to leaders, but to every member of the Church.

V17. Their divisiveness is splitting God’s temple apart. It is God’s temple that they are spoiling. Are they aware of it? This is a serious sin against God. In practice, people often see the Church as the initiative of this leader or that one; or, of this group of people who are the foundation members; or, of this family who donated the land, and so on. When this kind of emphasis is allowed to take root in the life of any Church, it provides the basis for problems that are not easy to resolve.

We need to remind ourselves continually that the Church is God’s temple. If anyone destroys it by their division, or by the way they build, God will destroy them. In that case, it has nothing to do with rewards; it involves a far harsher judgement. Division is not only against God’s temple, but against themselves—for they are God’s temple.

A right view of their leaders (3:18–4:13)

Vv18–20. As we have already discussed, there are two ways of looking at life, 1) through the filter of reality, i.e. as God wants us to see it, or 2) the way of unreality, i.e. the way the world looks at life. The wisdom of the world can sometimes seem very impressive—some could even say, ‘realistic’, in the way most people in this world see life. Non-believers can sound very wise, and seem very clever, but their arguments are based on a false premise, and God will expose their emptiness one day. Such wisdom is complete foolishness in God’s sight. If you remove God from your considerations, you have to come up with a substitute for God, or you have to fall into the problem of advocating anarchy.

The Corinthians had either not thought through their position carefully enough, or they were deceiving themselves, says Paul. Having accepted God’s way of salvation through a crucified Christ, they continued to admire the wisdom of the world, for which a crucified Christ was totally unacceptable. True wisdom demands that we reject the wisdom of this world, because it is empty, fruitless, and temporary.

Vv21–22. The Corinthian Christians were also glorying in that which is created, rather than in the Creator (Rom. 1:25). By doing so, they were doing what the pagans were condemned for doing. They were also limiting themselves from enjoying all the good that they had in Christ. All the leaders were given to them by God—not just one of them. In addition, everything else was God-given, such as life, and death, the present and the future. All belonged to them.

Question: Doesn’t it seem strange for Paul to mention death as one of the things that belonged to them?

When we realise that in Christ death has been conquered, and eternal life is now ours, then death is God’s gift that ushers us into eternal life. Death for the Christian leads to eternal hope; a hope that non-believers do not have when they have to face death. All of these things belong to the Christian because of his new relationship with God in Christ.

Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that even Christ is now theirs, and so is God, because of what Christ had achieved for them. In their divisiveness they had failed to understand all that belonged to them in Christ. Belonging to Christ, and to God, meant that they were under new management, with a new agenda in life, new priorities, new values, and a new way of living that was completely different to their old pagan past.

4:1–5. Up to this point, Paul had been telling the Corinthian believers that there is a big difference between the wisdom of God, and the wisdom of this world. The wisdom of the world leads to pride, and this always leads to division. The Church, which is God’s temple, blessed by the presence of the Spirit, is where God’s wisdom is to be worked out. The Spirit seeks to do this in the lives of all who are in Christ. He does this by helping believers to understand what it is to be in Christ, experiencing His life in a unity of congregational life and purpose. The Corinthians needed to understand that the temple is a sacred place, not a place for jealousy, quarrelling, or division.

Their pride had blinded them not only to the way they were living, but to the biblical standards by which they needed to evaluate everything, including the leaders sent to them to help them in their Christian growth. They were judging leaders in the Church by worldly standards, not even understanding what role Church leaders were meant to play in their lives.

Church leaders are merely servants of Christ, entrusted with the task of bringing them to maturity in Christ. The word ‘entrusted’ or ‘oikonomoi’ is the work of the ‘oikonomos’ or steward of the household. This is a term given to the head of a household of slaves, whose responsibility was to manage the day-to-day affairs of his master’s household and estate. To his master he is a slave, but to the other slaves he is their master. He is given a specific responsibility that is made clear to him, and he cannot go outside that job description.

Starting with the book of Acts in the NT, and especially in Paul’s writings, the word ‘servant’, while retaining the significance of ‘slave’, is to be understood in the light of OT teaching about the Servant of the Lord.

Just as an ‘oikonomos’ had a specific role to fulfil in the household, so the ‘servant of the Lord’ had a specific task given to him. His role was to bring God’s people into a right covenant relationship with God, and to equip them to be God’s servant people in the world. Whenever Paul speaks of himself or of the others as a ‘servant of Christ’, that is how we are to understand his use of the term servant.

In this passage in 1 Corinthians, the word that describes the kind of judgement they were making about Paul and the others, is ‘anakrinō’. Generally speaking there is nothing wrong with this kind of judgement. Paul praised the believers in the Church in Berea for examining the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul was saying was true. (Acts 17:11).

So, what was the problem in Corinth? They were judging Paul and Apollos on the basis of wrong criteria. Jesus himself said to the Pharisees, Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgement (Jn. 7:24); in other words, ‘judge using the right criteria’.

Question: It seems strange that the Corinthians would judge their Church leaders using worldly criteria, when they didn’t even know what the role of Church leaders was supposed to be!

Paul was not interested in their evaluation of him personally, because it was based on false criteria. He was not prepared to evaluate his own ministry because he could not depend on the objectivity of his own assessment. He wasn’t aware of anything wrong that he was doing, but that didn’t mean that there was nothing to be corrected. He worked as one who was totally responsible to God, and he left the judgement for God to make on that last day. It would be a day when everything would be brought to light by God, and every person’s motives would be made clear.

Question: We have a difficulty here as I see it. We are not always clear ourselves about the motives that drive us to do what we do.

We must strive to ensure that our motives are pure; that we are not serving the Lord for the financial benefits it brings; or the prestige that it might bring to us; or the power that we can exercise over people; and so on.

4:6–7. Paul has used Apollos and himself as an example of how they should live and serve. As I have already mentioned, the role of the ‘oikonomos’ (steward) was clearly defined. Paul has now used three images to describe the kind of work God’s servants are called to do: to be a gardener, a builder, a steward. The role of each is defined. Paul now turns his attention from the leaders, to the believers. He tells them that the way they live the Christian life, and the way they serve the Lord, is defined for them in the Scriptures. They must not go outside these boundaries by interpreting the way they live and what they do using secular criteria. It is their duty to understand the Scriptures and to interpret their role in the light of the Scriptures. This means they need to understand the boundaries correctly. They are not to add to what God has said.

When we come to understand the nature of the role of leaders in the Christian Church, we will not boast of one person over another. Any differences in approach have nothing to do with one person’s superiority over another’s. Whatever each person has received is a gift from God, and does not depend on personal merit. If it is a gift, then there is nothing to boast about. The Corinthians were proud of their giftedness, but this fact should prevent them from any king of boasting. Gifts are just that! They are something given to us. The world might like to boast about giftedness, but there is no room in the Christian life for such boasting. Instead, there should be a humble acknowledgement that all that we are, and have, comes from God.

4:8–13. If the Corinthians wanted to know what it was like to be faithful servants of Christ, let them consider the contrast between their idea of leadership, and the way it should be worked out. In this passage Paul is extremely strong in the way he expresses himself. Some commentators think that Paul was addressing the leaders at this point, not the whole congregation. There is no indication that this is so. Paul is speaking to the whole Church.

In v8, Paul is echoeing the way the Corinthians felt about themselves. They were completely self-satisfied with their limited Christian experience.

Question: When Paul says, “already you have all you want!” is he serious or is he being sarcastic?

Paul is simply expressing their self-satisfaction and the way they thought about their own spirituality. Their attitude was quite different to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. It also reminds us of the Church in Laodicea that thought that they were rich and had need of nothing. (Rev. 3:17). These Corinthians were probably voicing the catch-cry of the Stoics: ‘I alone am rich, I alone reign as king.’ It was a terrible expression of self-sufficiency. And that, says Paul, meant that they thought they could manage without Paul, or the other apostles!

I wish this was true, says Paul. Then we could celebrate your riches and splendour with you. The fact was that their lives were completely different to what they should have been.

Vv9–10. Paul goes on to describe the real life of the apostles. He expresses himself in the present tense, to show what life was like for them in the present. Paul uses an illustration of Christians being led by gladiators to their deaths in the arena. First came the gladiators, and then those who were to die at the end of the procession. They were jeered, scoffed and publicly humiliated before they had to face the gladiators and certain death. That is what life is like for us, says Paul.

Firstly, the apostles are fools for Christ. The Christians in Corinth, on the other hand saw themselves as wise in Christ. Unfortunately, it was not the wisdom of Christ they were talking about, but the wisdom of the world. They were looking at themselves through the eyes of the world. In other words, they were getting too friendly with the world. They saw themselves as strong and honoured, while Paul saw himself as weak and dishonoured.

Secondly, the present state of the apostles was one of suffering, being hungry, thirsty and lacking decent clothes. They were also brutally treated. Paul uses the same expression as was used of the way Jesus was treated.

Paul goes on with his description of what they had to put up with, concluding that they were treated like scum and refuse—the filth that is to be thrown out!

The Corinthians were claiming great things for themselves, but Paul shows them the radical difference between the world’s point of view and that of the Christian—between the values of the world, and godly values.

A personal appeal (4:14–21)

Paul now changes his tone quite abruptly. His desire is not to put them to shame, but to warn them to change their direction in life. He brought them to birth in Jesus Christ, and now, as a father, he was deeply anxious about his children. Children may have all sorts of guardians looking after them, but a child has only one father. A guardian could not possibly have the same affection for the child as the father. In those days a guardian was a slave who was appointed to look after the child, to take him to school and to bring him back, as well as making sure that he was helped with his lessons and taught good manners. He had a good relationship with the child, but he was not the child’s father.

As the father of the Church in Corinth, Paul had a special affection for them, but they needed to listen to him. He wanted them to imitate him, i.e. to imitate his devotion to the Lord, his commitment to Christ, and to live a holy and fruitful life as Christians. He says that Timothy will be coming to them shortly, and will tell them that Paul’s life is completely consistent with his preaching.

Some people in the Church in Corinth had become arrogant. They were claiming that Paul did not have the courage to come back to them, and therefore, they did not need to take any notice of what he was saying. Paul assures them, that God willing, he was coming back to them, and then he would see if the big talkers among them were also effective in their Christian lives. Did their lives match up with their big talk?

Belonging to the kingdom of God was not just a matter of talk. Some people can live in the life of the Church, be totally familiar with the language of Christians, and can seem to be very knowledgeable, even pious. Unfortunately, Churches sometimes place too much value on people who are good talkers but do not demonstrate the power of the Spirit in their lives. People who belong to the kingdom must demonstrate the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their devotion to Christ.

How do the Corinthians want Paul to come to them? He can come to them with strong discipline, or with love. The choice was theirs.