1 Corinthians 1:17 – 2:5

Click here to read the passage.

This is an incredibly powerful passage that we probably all know quite well. Paul is writing to a community that was divided by boasting about who was the wisest: specifically they argued about which teacher was the best with words, and therefore that those who followed him were the best educated and the wisest. Paul wants to smash that kind of thinking by turning the whole idea of wisdom upside down.

First of all, he says that his communication of the gospel in Corinth was not about wise words. In contrast, he says he was not eloquent or persuasive, but weak and afraid. Getting better at preaching, or learning some formula for communicating the message, will not necessarily mean more people coming to the Lord. It is the cross of Jesus which saves, not smart thinking or clever preaching. Faith thus rests on the power of God, not the wisdom of men.

This appears ridiculously foolish to the wise and intelligent of this world. Some days when I post from this blog onto facebook I cringe with anxiety about what my non-believing friends might think of me. I want to show them that following Jesus, believing in God, reading the Bible is all rational and helps us lead a better life. I want them to see signs, and discover wisdom; they are just like the Jews and the Greeks of Paul’s age. But there are days when I know that my facebook friends will think that I am foolish and crazy. Those are the days when I need to trust that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And that God’s wisdom has trumped humanity’s wisdom. As Isaiah prophesied, wisdom and intelligence are annulled in the context of God’s judgment (Is 29:14). It was God’s plan, Paul argues, that humans could not find him by their own wisdom. If they could, it would unfairly privilege the naturally intelligent, those who have access to education, those who are born in good families. It would also allow those people to boast about who they are and what they have, as if salvation was dependent on themselves. But in God’s wisdom, he chose that which is foolish, those who are weak, people who have no family. Then there can be no boasting, for those people know they are saved only because of God’s amazing grace and favor.

It is only because of God that we exist in this relationship with him. Nothing we have done, nothing we are doing, nothing we will do earns us the right to be in Christ. In our feelings of failure and weakness, in our fears of looking foolish and even being foolish, Jesus is wisdom for us, and righteousness, and powerful redemption. The power to save is his, not ours. We are holy in him, as despised and rejected as we might feel ourselves to be. All we need do, in God’s wisdom, is believe.

Prayer: God, your ways are inscrutable to me! Trusting you doesn’t always make sense. I hate looking foolish, Lord, but if that’s who I am, so be it. Your foolishness is wiser than the world’s wisdom. Thank you for choosing me, in my foolishness and weakness, and even my struggle to trust you.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Click here to read the passage.

In this passage Paul gets to the issue at hand: bickering groups within the Christian community. It almost seems we can stop there, with verse 10 alone, and have plenty to apply to our own situations. But let us go on. We will find that the text here also runs into the next section (verses 17 and following), but we will leave that until tomorrow.

It has been made clear to Paul that there are quarrels among the brothers (and also the sisters, presumably). This was conveyed to him by people connected with Chloe; perhaps they were part of a house church that met in Chloe’s house, but we have no extra evidence about this in the Bible or in extra-biblical church history. The quarrels stemmed from each person associating him or herself with different church leaders: Paul, Peter (Cephas), Apollos (cf Acts 18:24 – 19:1), and even Christ Jesus himself. We have seen this kind of thing happen throughout church history (eg Pelagians vs Augustinians, or Calvinists vs Lutherans), and on into modern times too. How can this be? Paul asks, with a series of rhetorical questions. Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified, or were you baptized into the name of Paul? Of course not! Paul despises this idea as ridiculous.

Paul did do some baptizing: Crispus, Gaius, the household of Stephanas, perhaps a few other people whose names he can’t remember. But baptizing people was not the focus of his ministry. He wasn’t sent to baptize, but to evangelize – to announce the reign of Jesus, the lord of the earth, whose mission brings healing and restoration to all people who turn to him in faith. In the name of this Lord, Jesus Christ, Paul encourages the brothers and sisters in Corinth to all speak the same, to be restored or mended so that they have the same mind, and in the same opinion. Under the one Lord, there should be no dissenting divisions.

Am I a member of a clique which disagrees with a different clique? Do I follow after one particular leader or teacher? Do I create or foment division within the Christian communities of which I am part? In truth, it is impossible, in today’s reality, for all of us to think the same. Some of us will differ in how we understand some aspects of church order and practice, baptism, gender roles, divorce and remarriage, and many other issues. But we must agree on the essential truth that the Lord Jesus is our King and Savior, and we are all obedient to him. May that truth be at the centre of our relationships with Christian brothers and sisters.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, forgive me for the petty disagreements which divide me from brothers and sisters for whom you have died. Help us to be of one mind in those things which really matter.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

Click here to read the passage.

This short section is the traditional thanksgiving portion of the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Almost all of Paul’s letters have a thanksgiving section like this (except Galatians, 1 Timothy, and Titus) and it was a cultural norm to begin in this way, after listing the writer and recipients of the letter.

Paul is thankful for the grace of God given to the Corinthians. It is helpful to understand the connections throughout this section (and indeed the whole letter) made through the use of the word root, charis, which we lose in the English translation. ‘Give thanks’ is eucharisto. ‘Grace’ is charis. ‘Gift’ (verse 7) is charisma. If we join these ideas together in one sentence, we read ‘Eucharisto because of God’s charis given to you … as a result of which you do not lack charisma‘. (I give thanks because of God’s grace … as a result of which you do not lack gifts.)

Another significant word in this passage which we lose in some of the English translations is bebaio, which is found in verses 6 (usually translated as ‘confirm’) and 8 (translated as ‘confirm’ by some, but in others as ‘sustain’, ‘strengthen’, ‘keep firm’, etc). In verse 6, the idea of ‘the testimony about Christ having been confirmed in you’ in this context is probably related to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, and the gifts God gives as a result. Just as we learned while studying Acts 15 that the baptism in the Spirit on the Gentiles confirms their inclusion in the covenant of God with his people, so here their spiritual gifts confirm the grace they have experienced through Christ. And thus in verse 8, it is that same grace which has confirmed their status as legally blameless, until the day when the Lord Jesus Christ is revealed at the end of time as we know it. Anengkletos is a judicial word which indicates that someone on trial cannot be convicted in court. The Lord Jesus, by his grace, will confirm that the believer is accounted blameless in the final day of judgement.

As if that is not enough already to be thankful for, while they wait for that day they have every spiritual gift available, having been made rich in all speech (logos) and in all knowledge. A case could be made for translating logos as ‘reason’, in parallel with knowledge. Given what we know of the problems in the church at Corinth, both are applicable. As we will discover, there were disputes in the church about who was [most] wise and who was [most] gifted. Here Paul is affirming, perhaps a touch ironically, that the church is rich in both wisdom and gifts, as a result of God’s grace.

His final word, before getting onto the matter at hand, is about God rather than the believers. Yes, they have been called into the fellowship (or the communion) of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; this is significant especially in light of the divisions the church is experiencing. But what is more important here, foregrounded by the order of the words, is that God is faithful. God will not let them go, despite their sinfulness and bickering while they wait for that great day, that is, despite their own unfaithfulness to the covenant. God is faithful.

This is a word we need to hear. Human nature has not changed. We still see divisions in our churches, and between our churches. We still see ‘haves’ lording it inappropriately over ‘have-nots’, and ‘have-nots’ grumbling and feeling jealous because they are missing out. But we must be reminded about God’s grace, that in him we have been made rich and that we do not lack gifts. More importantly – because surely it is clear that some people have more than others – God in his grace has given us the great gift of blamelessness and he is faithful to the end.

Prayer: Lord God, sometimes it feels my ground is shaking, and if I look at others I feel my own lack. Help me to believe and take hold of your great grace, to trust you in your faithfulness to present me as blameless on that last day. Thank you for the gifts you have given me, and help me to use them for your glory.

1 Corinthians 1:1-3

Click here to read the passage.

The section of Acts we have read over the last week (Chapter 18) is a great introduction to studies in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There we learned about Paul’s ministry in the synagogue and the house next door, with Priscilla and Aquila, plus Silas and Timothy, by his side. Many people, both Jews and Gentiles, believed in the Lord Jesus and were baptised because of Paul’s teaching and preaching over eighteen months. There was opposition to Paul, but he was kept physically safe. The synagogue leader Sosthenes, however, was beaten up, though it is not clear whether this was by the Jews (because he had become a Christian) or by the Greeks (because he was wasting the proconsul’s time by prosecuting Paul). Later, the Alexandrian Apollos, after being instructed by Aquila and Priscilla, arrived in the church at Corinth for a powerful ministry of the word.

It was probably in about 51 AD that Paul was in Corinth, and scholars guess that this letter was written two or three years later, while he was stationed at Ephesus. It seems that Paul has heard that the church needs correction (1 Co 1:11), and also that he has received a letter containing questions from them (1 Co 7:1). Perhaps the same synagogue leader, Sosthenes, having become a Christian, brought the letter to Paul and is staying with him for some time.

Now Paul is writing in response, and he identifies himself as called by the will of God [to be] an apostle of Christ Jesus. The recipients of the letter he identifies as:

  • the church of God in Corinth
  • made holy in Christ Jesus
  • called to be holy
  • (along with everyone in every place who calls on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ)

The most interesting part of this is that they are both already made holy and also called to be holy. Being holy means being set apart, or consecrated, for a special task or relationship. The word also implies difference or ‘otherness’. By virtue of following Jesus, believers are already holy, different, set apart, from the rest of the world. We are also called to continue in that holiness. In a few other Pauline passages we learn that Paul associates holiness with purity, blamelessness (e.g. Eph 1:4; 5:27; Col 1:22) and righteousness (1 Thess 2:10; Tit 1:8), but mostly he uses the word to talk about set-apartness. We are called for a special purpose.

Finally in the greeting, Paul uses a typical formula of blessing: grace and peace. How I need those things in my life! It is very easy to ignore those words, over-used as they can be. But take a moment to receive right now peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus. You are set apart for him. Whatever your circumstance, breathe in that peace which is not as the world gives.

Prayer: God of all grace, thank you that you grant us your peace. I praise you for setting me apart to be yours, and ask your Holy Spirit to fill me and enable me to continue to be holy as you have called me to be.