If we were going to put a title or theme on this study of First Corinthians, it might be 'Called to be Saints'. To be a saint is to be set aside for use by God. We don't do good works to become saints. Our position as a saint isn't from accomplishments. Being a saint isn't like a badge we earn from God. Our salvation comes from an understanding of dying to sel; of surrender of our will, of putting our self in the service of the one who saved us we become saints, set aside for Him. J. Vernon McGee described it this way:
The epistle was written in 55 A.D. Paul was most likely in Ephesus on his third missionary journey when he wrote this. In Acts 19 we see Paul was in Ephesus for 2 years at the school of Tyrranus. Chronologically this book was written before the book of Romans. When Paul left Ephesus he made his way to Corinth. That's when he wrote to the Romans. As Paul wrote to address those in Rome, he was looking out the window at Corinth.
The city of Corinth was located on the 4 mile wide strip of land that connected the southern part of the Roman province Achaia to the mainland of Greece. This narrow strip of land became a main thoroughfare for land travel among Greece. More importantly it became a crossroads for sea travel. This narrow strip of land was all that was between these two bodies of water. To get from one side to the other by ship meant hundreds of miles around the southern end of Achaia. That was a long and dangerous trip. The sea captains began to carry their ships on skids or roll them on rollers along the ground over land. This made Corinth a major sea port. It became a major trade city and was important to trade throughout the area at that time.
In 54A.D. there were only a few major sporting events. One was the Olympian Games and the other was called the Isthmian games. The Olympic Games started in this area in 776 B.C. in Olympia. Then a couple hundred years later the Isthmian came along and were held in Corinth. Every two years Corinth was filled with this great crowd of athletes and fans of the Isthmian games.
Corinth was a giant cultural melting pot of 200,000 free and 400,000 slaves. There was a diversity of religions and moral standards. This was a very prosperous city because there was so much commerce. As you can imagine by its prosperity it was also full of corruption of all kinds. Things were so bad at that time that the worst thing you could call a person was a Corinthian. The Corinthian name became synonymous with debauchery and moral depravity. To be Corinthianized was to be identified with this moral denigration. This was a place where you might say anything went.
Idolatry was rampant Corinth. The city had an Acropolis. this was a 'high place' that rose 2000 feet. It was a military place but also a place where worship was conducted. The most famous of ruins of Corinth is the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. This temple was an active place and over a 1000 temple prostitutes operated out of there. Every night they would come down from the temple into the city to offer themselves to the men of the city and to the visitors. Corinth had such a reputation that prostitutes in other cities were being called "Corinthian Girls".
At this point you might be asking, "What was Paul doing there?" Or, "Why would anyone start a church there?" What an awful place. How could a church ever make it there? Paul saw it as a place where people in need gathered. It was a crossroads for trade but it could be a crossroads for the gospel.
Paul brought the people of Corinth something they hadn't heard of; forgiveness of sins and life eternal. That's why Paul started a church in Corinth. It was to bring light to a society that was completely immersed in the darkness. The church was founded there on the Paul's second missionary journey. You can read about this in Acts 18.
Paul wrote this letter to the church because he is deeply concerned with the condition of the church. Things had gone wrong. The church wasn't a total loss but it was headed in the wrong direction. So this is mostly a letter of correction. The problem with the church of Corinth was worldliness. These Christians were so steeped in this pagan culture that they didn't know how to operate outside of it. All they know was immorality and perversion so they struggled to separate themselves from it. No church caused Paul as many headaches as the church of Corinth.
Paul writes this letter in hopes of straightening them out. The church didn't look any different than the world around it. The Christians didn't live and act any different than the pagans. That's a problem. They lacked holiness and righteousness. The Church of Corinth had been infected by the perverse and sinful world around them. The church of Corinth had not set aside the worldly things. They had not put aside the paganism in pursuit of holiness. Paul writes in hopes of saving them.
Paul was in Ephesus and he had written a letter before this letter. He refers to this previous letter in chapter 5. That first letter had caused some disturbances in the church. Paul got a report from Chloe's house about some concerns. Now this delegation ended up coming to Paul from Corinth bringing him a list of questions or concerns. So Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians in response to their list of concerns.
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
In this day & time you started a letter by stating who you were. This church knew Paul well and he knew many of them. However, they didn't all respect or recognize his authority. That's why Paul starts the letter this way. He is reminding them he was Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ.
An apostle was a messenger or one with a message. Paul was saying he was given the message of Jesus through the will of God. This calling to be an apostle didn't come by man's will, particularly his. Paul wasn't voted an apostle in a popular vote. He was called by God. Regardless of whether they respected or acknowledged this fact didn't matter; the fact was that it was God's will. This was the basis for the authority under which Paul operated. These men needed reminded of that.
Paul then mentions Sosthenes. This is likely the same man mentioned in Acts 18 as the leader of the synagogue in Corinth. When Paul first went to Corinth there was a man named Crispus as ruler of the synagogue. He became a believer in Jesus Christ and probably left because of it. That's when Sosthenes became the ruler of the synagogue. He subsequently took a beating from the Greeks because of Paul. Now it appears he too was saved and was with Paul. Sosthenes was probably a scribe and was the one doing the actual writing.
Paul says he is writing to the church of God. The word for church is ekklesia. That's not a religious word, it simply means an assembly or gathering of the people. Paul says he is writing to the ekklesia of God. The assembly of God. This was a gathering of the saints in Corinth. Paul reminds this gathering that they were called to be saints because they called on the name of Jesus in trust and repentance. This becomes the foundations for Paul's corrections; its as if Paul were saying, "You are the saints of God, so why is this going on in your gathering?"
1 Corinthians 1:4-9
Paul begins his letter by giving them some encouragement and telling them what they are doing well. He really was thankful for them. They had problems but they were still a church. They were still a fellowship of believers.
He says by God's grace they were enriched in utterance and all knowledge. These rich spiritual gifts were received by the grace of a God in their fellowship. These things were a testimony to them the power and presence of Jesus Christ. Every true believer knows of God's grace, but we need reminded once in a while. Sometimes others bring a fresh appreciation or understanding of God's grace that drives us to worship. The Corinthians were identified as a gathering that spoke of Jesus, learned about Jesus through the operating in their gifts and they eagerly longed for the return of Jesus. These were all good things and Paul thanks God for that.
Nothing going on in the church of Corinth endangered the salvation of the Saints there because he said these people would be confirmed by Jesus in the end. He encouraged them that they would be found blameless in the Day of the Lord and that God could be counted on in being faithful in that way.
Paul is going to call them to correction, but he doesn't want them to think they aren't true disciples. In fact, being a true disciple is an argument for these corrections. I believe the word of caution here should be that every individual know they truly are a saint. Paul's assurance of being confirmed in Jesus was for a body of believers; made of individuals. Far too many are hiding in our churches as false converts playing the religious game. Some were born in church and assume Christianity from heritage, some signed a card, walked an isle or were declared saved by repeating a prayer after someone.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Paul begins to address the problems that have been brought to him. He starts, not by demanding they improve, which he had the authority to do, but by pleading with his brethren. He didn't want to demand they be obedient to him as much as encourage them to be obedient to the Lord. Paul mentions Jesus 10 times in the first 10 verses. I think we know from the beginning that Paul intends to build this church up with Christ at the center.
This letter is offered by Paul out of genuine concern that was brought to Paul by some from Chloe's house. I think we need more folks like this in the church; people who see a problem and are willing to do something about it. These folks were willing to go to Paul and ask his help in this matter. They were concerned for the health of the body of Christ. Were there reprisals against this household? We don't know for sure but we know there shouldn't have been.
It was time for this church to examine its health and Paul was the examining physician. Often the health of our churches is assessed by how entertaining the preacher is, how good the coffee is and if the music suited you. What about spiritual growth? What about Sanctification? Growing in holiness and righteousness? What about personal responsibility and accountability for each person to walk in the spirit, operate in their gifts? We often look around the church and are filled with advice of what others should do. Do you use that same critical eye to analyze our own place?
Paul wanted them to all speak the same thing. Maybe a better rendering would be 'keep on speaking the same thing.' They started as one church, one body and one voice all speaking of a common grace through which they received salvation through Jesus Christ. And if they kept speaking the same thing as one body they would speak in a unified message with no divisions.
Paul said there were divisions and Chloe said this was the root of the strife among them. This Greek word for 'divisions' is schisma. We get our word "schism" from this word. We might think of this as a "party" or a "faction." It really means "tear, or rend." Paul was begging these saints to stop ripping each other apart. He wanted them to stop tearing up the body of Christ. Instead he wanted them to be 'perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.' The words used for joined together are also used in speaking of mending torn nets. Or in other places it was a medical word used of knitting together bones that have been fractured or maybe the joining together a joint that has been dislocated.
These folks needed to stop tearing each other apart and start the mending process. They needed to remember they were all saved by grace. They started at a common point where they were saved by grace alone; completely and utterly unworthy of anything to do with Christ. Since that humbling and receiving Christ they had grown. However they grew incorrectly. They had grown into divisions and schisms. This delegation that came to him from Chloe's house filled Paul in on what was going on. They were all splintered into smaller groups. They were relying on their understandings and worldly wisdom and lining up behind men or beliefs or ideas instead of together seeking the Lord.
Paul gives the example of the divisions; I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ. This probably wasn't what they were saying. The factions were probably centered on other men within the fellowship. However Paul uses himself, Apollos, Cephas and Christ as examples. Who would think that these four would be leaders of factions or tears in the body of Christ? That's probably Paul's point. And the point is made with this preposterous comparison while the identities of the guilty parties were protected.
Isn't it amazing how divided the body of Christ is? Paul isn't talking necessarily about being split up into smaller fellowships. It doesn't necessarily have to be applied to denominations, though it could. The church has been torn into small pieces and labeled by the world in many ways.
Paul asks the rhetorical questions, "Is Christ divided?" Was someone else crucified for you? Were you baptized into someone else's name? No, Christ isn't divided, there is one body. No, no one else was crucified for you, Jesus Christ was the only one who could be crucified for you. No, you weren't baptized into anyone else's name.
The division may well have come about by some saying they were baptized by one man and another group saying they were baptized under another. That's why Paul said he was glad he didn't baptize any of them. He didn't want anyone saying they were baptized into his name. Paul downplays the importance of baptism in light of it causing division. That isn't even remotely close to what baptism was about.
All this division over baptism were ridiculous. He said Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. Paul preached the gospel simply. Not with great and eloquent words of wisdom because the power to save wasn't in the words or the delivery or the man, or the baptism. If any of those things were elevated then the cross of Christ would be made of no effect. A man preaching the gospel but doing it in such a way as to elevate himself or his belief to add his wisdom or purpose to give anything or anyone glory but Jesus Christ is preaching the gospel with no effect.
It is the way of the world to esteem worldly wisdom. This worldliness was causing problems in the church of Corinth. It still causes lots of problems in lots of churches today. If wordly wisdom enters the equation, then the gospel has no affect. This is something we must guard against; the gospel delivered the wrong way has no effect.
1 Corinthians 1:18
In the Roman culture at that time the cross was a brutal instrument of death. To say you find hope in the cross is equivalent to us saying we find hope in the electric chair. The cross was a means of execution, but also shame, of the worst criminals. The Jews regarded anyone hanged on a tree as be cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23); to think that their messiah would do such a thing was utterly ridiculous to them.
The message of the cross is the gospel message of Jesus Christ. It's a messaged that salvation is possible because of the brutal and horrible death that Jesus died on the cross. How do we know this is true? The resurrection is the evidence. This gospel message doesn't make any sense to the unregenerate heart. In fact, for the heart that hasn't been born again all that talk about a cross is just crazy. However, when our eyes are opened, when God brought us to that place in our life where we were at the end of our self and we realized we were at odds with God; and we discovered our desperate need of salvation; and suddenly, by grace the gift of forgiveness and eternal life becomes so obvious. Its then we can repent of our sins and trust in that work that was done on the cross. Suddenly the cross that seemed so ridiculous, this instrument of death, become sa source of hope to everyone who believes. Suddenly that cross represents the power of God because the cross was vacant, the grave is empty and death was defeated.
1 Corinthians 1:19-21
Can you find God in the books written by man? Can you study under all the great scholars of the world and read of all the great scholars of the past and find God? If you had all the wisdom of the world, would you find God there? The Corinthians, and maybe more generally the Greeks, thought the answer was yes. They were holding up these wise men in their culture and putting trust in what they said. But they only knew worldly wisdom. They knew nothing of the cross and of God.
God can't be found through human wisdom. The wisdom of the wise says I can learn about God and figure Him out. The quote from Isaiah says,"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." God can only be found through the message of the cross. If you pursue human wisdom it may bring about an earthly contentment or happiness for a season. But human wisdom itself can never bring the true knowledge of the true God.
Paul asks where the wise men are and the scribes? Where are these men that want to debate everything all the time? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? The wisest and most knowledgeable man could never compete with what Jesus did on the cross. A crucified messiah made no sense to men.
God went to great lengths to accomplish our salvation. Isn't it amazing? And he takes pleasure saving those who believe in the message of the cross.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
The Jews were looking for a great sign. They watched for their messiah. They believed He would come in great power. He would crush the rulers of this world and save His people, the Jews, and he would set up His kingdom on earth where he would rule. The Jews were looking for their messiah but they wouldn't look for him on a cross. They couldn't comprehend a crucified messiah. That didn't fit into their plan or the way they had things figured out. The Jews were looking for a sign. They rejected the fulfillment of many prophecies, they rejected Jesus and the cross and they were still waiting, looking for their sign.
The Greeks put their faith in academics and philosophy. No amount of education will cause a person to look at the cross and say,"Mmm, now I understand." No philosophy will cause men to look to the cross and say that it makes sense. No man will arrive at the cross because of his Jewish heritage, his education or philosophy of life.
The preaching of the crucified Christ was a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. For those who are called, the cross represents the power and wisdom of God. A man nailed to a cross appeared weak to the world. It was a thing of shame; to be stripped naked, beat, spit on and nailed to a cross. These things weren't even spoken of in polite conversation.
On the cross Jesus appeared to be at the mercy of men and without any will of his own. But he was fulfilling the perfect will of God. The weak appearance would become a show of power over death. And what appeared to be unwise would turn out to be a supreme act of love for all men.
Paul says, "Foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. There is no foolishness of God only what men understand as foolishness of God. This thing that appeared to be foolish by mans standard, the crucifixion of Christ, was beyond any wisdom of men. And this appearance of weakness of a messiah nailed to a cross was nothing like it appeared. He did something no man could do in all of history past, in the present or the future. He became the perfect sacrifice and paid the price for sins of men.
1 Corinthians 1:26
No one is called because of their wisdom. God doesn't need the wisdom of men. No one is called because they are mighty. God isn't interested in us because of our physical strength, wealth or influence. No one is called because they are noble. Being born into the right family has nothing to do with your calling. God doesn't care who your daddy is or what your last name is or what you were when you were called?
Your calling is the God of Grace and mercy calling out to His creation to come back to Him. God doesn't call us because of what we are, who we are or any other qualifier. In fact, He calls us in spite of what we are and what we deserve and gives us a precious and free gift. He has gone to great lengths to call us. Man has gone to greater lengths to ignore that call.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29
The world makes its judgments based on wisdom, strength, and nobility. Men and women that measure high in these categories will be elevated in the eyes of the world. These are measurements of strength of the flesh in a fallen world. But these worldly aspects will burn away and they will become meaningless.
God chooses the foolish, weak and base things of the world. The world would look at God's people and see the low born, foolish, poor, unimportant, un-noticed, no name, weak, un-educated, humbled, and broken men and women. God looks at these same who trust in Christ and sees them as children of God Most High.
In Corinth the values of the world were being applied to the spiritual. These folks were trying to determine standing with God and standing in the body of Christ according to these worldly measurements. Paul said God uses the things that are despised and weak. He takes the people and things in which the world places no value and exalts them, empowers them and works in their lives. If you are a Christian you are nothing in the eyes of the world. If the single identity of your life was your identification with Christ, the world would find you useless because you have yielded who you are to what He is. You no longer receive any praise and glory for your accomplishments or achievements. You give all glory to Jesus Christ and that goes against the rules of the world.
God has chosen the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are. The greatest example of this is Christ himself. He was born among the animals to a humble family with no money and no standing in the world. In the world's eyes He was nothing and had nothing to offer. Because of that he was dismissed early on and when he didn't go away, he was mocked, scoffed at, spit on and nailed to a cross. Yet, they couldn't keep Him in the grave; He ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father. When He returns, the world will look on Him and every knee will bow to Him. He will come to judge the world and in the end He will bring to nothing the things that are.
1 Corinthians 1:30-31
If we are in Christ Jesus, then we are of no standing in the world. When we are in Christ Jesus, we are in good standing with God. We have been given our salvation by the wisdom of God, that is Jesus Christ. In Christ we are imputed His righteousness and we are Sanctified from sin and being set apart and purified for His use. In Christ we are Redeemed. That is being bought and paid for, we are bought out of our slavery and bondage of sin and all the glory of that goes to Jesus Christ.
The wisdom of the world is continually shown to be foolish. Worldly wisdom is fickle and ever changing. In the end the worldly wisdom you possess will be found useless. Not only by the world but we will each find it has no value in the kingdom of God.
The wisdom we all need is the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. The salvation story is so simple, too simple for us to comprehend. Deep down we know we are sinners and deserve death. We know we deserve the shame and guilt we feel. And in that state of bearing our burden of sin it is hard to accept something as simple as a free gift. The message of the cross and resurrection is foolishness to man and doesn't appeal to our sensibilities. Yet it is the most basic foundation of God's love for us. That's Paul's message to the church of Corinth and to us. Set aside the worldliness and grasp the knowledge of God.
©2016 Doug Ford
 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 572). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.