Today we begin Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Paul had visited Corinth on his second missionary journey, and stayed there for a year and a half (see Acts 18:1-11). This letter was likely written from Ephesus at the start of his third missionary journey (see Acts 19). Paul wrote this, in part, in response to a letter (or letters) that he had received from some on the Corinthian church (see 7:1). Paul had also heard about what was going on there (1:11). They were a church experiencing great difficulty.
The letter wis written from Paul and Sosthenes (1:1). This is very likely the former ruler of the Corinthian synagogue from Acts 18:17. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians, foreshadowing much of what he will write. He mentions speech and knowledge (v. 5), gifts of the Spirit (v. 7), and the Second Coming. Paul tells them that Christ is the One Who will sustain them to the end (v. 8), and that God is the One Who called them into fellowship with Christ (v. 9).
Therefore, in the name of Christ he admonishes them for the first problem he had to address: the divisions in their church (v. 10), which he heard about through others (v. 11). There were factions in the church based on which leader the people identified themselves with (v. 12). Paul points out that their only loyalty should be to Christ (v. 13).1 The part about who Paul did or did not baptize is meant to communicate that no matter what, it is the name of Jesus Christians are baptized in (vv. 14-16).
In verse 17 Paul tells them – Greeks in the philosophical homeland – that they are overthinking it. Stop worrying about who baptized whom, and realize that the point is the Gospel, the power of which lies in its simple message. It is so simple, that to the unsaved, it seems downright foolish (v. 18). Paul then quotes Isaiah 29:14, pointing out that the so-called “wisdom” of the world is destined to be destroyed (v. 19). How wise is it, then (v. 20)? God cannot be found through worldly wisdom, only the simple saving message of the Gospel (v. 21).
Paul then compares them to the unbelieving Jews (v. 22 – see Acts 18:12-13). Their insistence on fitting Christianity into a philosophical system will not bring them to the truth, just like no amount of signs would bring the Jews to the truth. It reveals a lack of faith on the part of the Corinthians to categorize their system according to who they follow. For those of faith, the simple message of the cross is enough (v. 24) while nothing aside from faith will ever be enough (v. 23). In the cross is true wisdom (v. 25).
Paul then tells them to look at themselves. Why were they called by God (see v. 9)? Because they were wise, rich, or powerful according to worldly standards (v. 26)? No. Because God chose them to shame those who seek ultimate truth in worldly ways (vv. 27-28) that they may be humbled (v. 29). Christ is the only wisdom that saves, and makes righteous, and makes holy (v. 30). So their boast is in the Lord only (v. 31 – see Jer 9:23-24).
Paul then points to himself. He did not come speaking in philosophical wisdom (2:1), but only the message of the cross (v. 2). That they believed in the message of the cross is only because of the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 4). So why would they now put their faith in worldly wisdom? Yet, Paul says, there is wisdom to be gained, though not the wisdom of the world, which here Paul says is according to the wisdom of the powers of darkness who will pass away with their worldly wisdom (v. 6). The wisdom that the mature in Christ gain is the wisdom of God (v. 7). In particular, this wisdom is the plan of salvation that centers on the cross of Christ. And Paul shows how useless the wisdom of the world and the powers of darkness is: the powers of darkness were not wise enough to realize that Christ had to go to the cross, and instead put him there thinking in their “wisdom” it would bring them victory (v. 8)!
It is those loved of God (v. 9 – see Isa 64:4) – those He gives His Spirit to – that have the wisdom of the cross (v. 10). Because only by the Spirit can we see and understand God’s plan of salvation (vv. 11-12). 2 This is why true wisdom is given through the preaching of the Gospel, through power of the Spirit (v. 13). And it has to be given by God! If it isn’t, then the truth cannot be understood (v. 14). Only those given the mind of Christ can understand (v. 16).
Paul now brings all of this back to the divisions he has heard about. As long as they have these petty disagreements according to worldly wisdom, they are not ready for true wisdom. When Paul first went there, they needed only the basics of the faith, because it was all they were ready for (3:2). They are showing that they are still not ready for more (vv. 1-2) because they are acting according to worldly wisdom (v. 3). And their divisions over who they follow prove it (v. 4)! They need to get their eyes off of man (vv. 5-6) and onto God (v. 7). Men are just instruments in His hands (vv. 8-9). Paul came and started preaching to them, and Apollos merely built on the foundation Paul laid (v. 10 – see Acts 18:27-28). But the foundation is Christ (v. 11)!
Paul then tells them that each man must be careful how he builds on the foundation of Christ. Does he build with what is precious and is purified by fire, or by what only kindles the fire of judgment and is destroyed (vv. 12-13). We will each be rewarded for how we build (v. 14); or we may lose rewards (v. 15). Paul then uses the analogy of the Temple. They, the Corinthians church, are the Temple of God because the Spirit dwells in them (v. 16). Will they allow their differences to destroy God’s Temple (their church) and earn judgment (v. 17). In order for this not to happen, they need to let go of their worldly “wisdom” and become a “fool” for Christ (v. 18). He reminds them that the wisdom of this world is no wisdom. True wisdom comes from God (vv. 19-20). So stop with the ridiculous divisions (v. 21) because they have all they need in Christ (vv. 22-23).
In 4:1, Paul warns against elevating any man to too high a position in their minds. They are but stewards of the wisdom of God. And stewards are only good stewards if they are faithful (v. 2). Paul is saying this to give them a right understanding of the role of the Apostles, elders, preachers, etc.. For himself, Paul doesn’t care how he is judged by man (v. 3). His conscience is clear before God (v. 4). And all will be revealed when Christ returns (v. 5). But for the Corinthians, he wants them to understand these things properly (v. 6). They cannot exalt themselves against each other since they have not earned anything they have (v. 7). And they have all they need (v. 8)!
Paul then points to the Apostles (including himself). Those who God entrusted to carry on His mission are actually last of all if they are to be judged with worldly wisdom (v. 9). Through their worldly foolishness, the church has become truly wise (v. 10). By worldly standards, the Apostles were nothing – they were scum (vv. 10-13)! So who were the Corinthians to exalt themselves? Paul isn’t trying to shame them, but teach them (v. 14). He exhorts them to imitate him, an Apostle (v. 16). Paul sent Timothy to them to remind them of these things (v. 17), but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t coming back, the idea of which made some of them bold in their divisiveness (vv. 18-19). When he comes, will he need to be harsh and admonish, or be gentle (v. 21)?
1 Ironically and sadly, the modern Protestant church came to be because we didn’t want to follow the Pope, but Christ only; and yet here we are, allowing ourselves to be divided by whether we follow Luther, or Wesley, or Calvin, etc.
2 This is why it is not until Pentecost that even the Apostles understood God’s plan.