Paul left off in chapter 8 telling the Corinthians that they need to consider more than themselves when using their freedom in Christ. They have to consider each other. Paul now continues with that thought pointing to himself and how he surrenders his rights for the sake of the church. Paul points out his own freedom in Christ as an Apostle (9:1-2). He has the same rights as the Corinthian believers and the other Apostles (vv. 3-5). He and Barnabas work for their living (v. 6) even though they have the right to live off of their preaching of the Gospel (vv. 7-14). Yet, they do not do that simply because they have the right, and they refrain from exercising this right so as not to hinder the spreading of the Gospel (v. 12, 15), and because God has called him to preach the Gospel without making money from it (vv. 16-18).
Even though Paul is free, he has made himself a servant of all in order to bring them the Gospel (v. 19). He became a Jew to the Jews (v. 20 – which is why he had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3). To Gentiles he became as a Gentile (v. 21). Note that though Paul is not under the law of Moses, he is still beholden to the law of Christ. Paul is a servant of all in order to see souls saved (vv. 19, 22-23). Paul then tells the Corinthians to follow his example. They are to live their lives according to the law of Christ. He uses the analogy of a runner in a race. The one who wins has to run to win (v. 24). In order to run to win, they have to have discipline and self-control (v. 25). If they do this for a physical trophy, how much more should Christians do this to win an eternal one? So Paul is intentional in how he runs his race (v. 26) so as to not exclude himself from preaching the Gospel (v. 27).
Paul then holds up Israel as an example. They were all saved at the Exodus (10:1-2) and all provided for by God (v. 3). And God did all this in Christ (v. 4). They all saw what God did through Christ, and yet some of them were not pleasing to God (v. 5). We have read the history of Israel. Paul is pointing to the failure of the physical people, as an example for the spiritual people of God (v. 6). They worshiped false gods from beginning to end (v. 7 – see Ex 32:6). We must not do the same. The sexual immorality in verse 8 is likely referring to Numbers 25. However, like earlier in the letter and throughout the Old Testament, this sexual immorality is spiritual. It is the worshiping of other gods. Those punished by God (Num 25:9) were punished not for the physical sexual immorality (Num 25:1) but for worshiping another god (Num 25:5).
So we, the spiritual people, must not do what they, the physical people, did to Christ. They grumbled against God and were destroyed by serpents (v. 9 – see Num 21:5-6). They grumbled against God and were excluded from their inheritance and killed (v. 10 – see Num 14:1-23). These, too, were examples for the church (v. 11). We need to heed what happened to them (v. 12) and not give in to the temptations of the world (v. 13). Note that Paul is specifically speaking in this passage of temptations to idolatry and the temptation to grumble against God. Paul is saying that God will preserve us in our trials so that we do not lose faith and complain against Him or worship false gods. This is not a blanket promise that God will always provide a way to escape any and every temptation, especially when we are tempted to sin because of our own stupid decisions!
Paul then tells the Corinthians to flee from the idolatry that ensnared Israel (v. 14). He is referring back to the food offered to idols. There is one sacrificial meal that we partake in: the Lord’s Supper (vv. 16-17). This is our participation in His sacrifice like the Israelites ate of their sacrifices at the altar (v. 18). Their sacrifice was to God. Our sacrifice is God. Paul is still making his point about surrendering our rights for the sake of the church. Food offered to idols is offered to no god, but to demons (vv. 19-20). You cannot partake of the cup of Christ and the cup of demons, which is what the weaker brother or sister does (v. 21). And since their perceived sin is counted against us as actual sin because of the stumbling block we lay before them (see chapter 8), we are tempting Christ like Israel did when we do so (v. 22).
Paul again quotes their “all things are lawful” (v. 23 – see 6:12). We should not seek to exercise our rights (see chapter 9), but to build each other up in the faith. We have to consider each other in our actions (v. 24). When it comes to eating meat, Paul says, basically, “don’t ask” if it is from a pagan offering (vv. 25-27), because with knowledge comes responsibility, and that responsibility is to each other (vv. 28-29). In verse 31, which is often plucked out of context, Paul is talking about eating and drinking in the context of what is offered to idols or not for the sake of our brothers. This is how God is glorified in us. We don’t put a stumbling block before a fellow believer, and we do nothing to hinder the Gospel (v. 32), just like the example Paul set (v. 33 – see chapter 9). Paul calls to follow that example, because that is the example Christ set (11:1).
Paul now encourages the church to remember the instructions he gave them (v. 2). These instructions are what Paul talks about through the end of chapter 14. First, Paul talks about the role of men and women in the home. The husband is the head of the household, even as Christ is the head of the church, and as Christ submitted to the Father (v. 3 – see Eph 5:22-33).
Paul then talks about this confusing matter of head coverings. Men shouldn’t cover their heads (v. 4, 7), but women must (v. 5). And her not wearing a head covering is somehow like her having her head shaved. But if she doesn’t cover her head, then she should keep her hair short (v. 6). But that is somehow a disgrace, so she has to cover her head. And this is because man was created first, and woman created for man (vv. 8-9), although now man comes from woman (v. 12). And how are angels involved (v. 10)?!? And it then seems like the “covering” Paul is talking about is actually hair (vv. 14-15). What’s going on here?
A few things before we unravel this. In Greek the word for “woman” and “wife” are the same word, and the word for “man” and “husband” are the same word. Context usually determines what is meant. Sometimes, like here, basing one translation off the other would be begging the question. No matter what, translating this passage requires a lot of interpretation. Please remember that no English translation is free from the interpretation of the translators! Add to that, the fact that Paul uses three different words for “covering” in this passage.
Based on verse 3, Paul is talking about Christian married people here. This applies to believers, and this applies to the married. Also, he is following up a long section about tempting other believers to sin, and I believe this is along those same lines. We also need to understand that a woman wearing a head covering is a sign of being under authority, but it is also a means of modesty. Additionally, in the pagan culture of Greece, the length of a woman’s hair was believed to be a sign of her fertility1: the longer the hair, the more fertile and desirable (tempting) a woman would be to a man. Plus, there were pagan cult prostitutes – male and female – who would be identifiable as such by their hair: male cult prostitutes would often grow their hair long, and female cult prostitutes would often wear wigs as their “head covering.” All of this would be known by the Corinthians believers. All of this comes into play here.
Paul is talking about the state of one’s head while praying or prophesying (vv. 4-5). So this is in the context of the Christian church’s worship over against pagan worship rituals. The word translated “cover” in verse 4 means literally “to have down from.” Combine this with verse 14 and the head covering of the man is clearly long hair. A man is not to have long hair as a Christian. This can be for many reasons. It would be considered effeminate in the first century. It would be what male pagan cult prostitutes would do. This does not exclude men from having long hair today, because neither of those connotations follow in our society.
Paul is saying that the roles of men and women in the home and in the church must be recognized. Men must take the responsibility of leadership and properly reflect God’s design for them. He is also drawing a distinction between pagan worship and true worship of the true God. No elements of pagan worship belong in Christian worship.
As for the women (or wives), the word for covered/uncovered is a different word, and it means literally “to hide or conceal something.” This is a physical covering to conceal the length of their hair. Why? Because first, it reflects their role of submission in the home and in the church (v. 3, 10). Paul is saying to women what he is saying to men: the roles of men and women in the home and the church must be recognized. And Paul roots these roles in creation (vv. 7-9), though he asserts a cooperative, complementary relationship between men and women (vv. 11-12). A woman covering (hiding) her hair length shows both modesty and recognition of her role in God’s plan. But it also keeps her from being an object of temptation, including angels (v. 10). Her covering is a signal to demons (false gods) that she is a Christian. This is talking about tempting angels (demons) to have a sexual encounter with her (which they likely did in the pagan temples! – see also Gen 6:1-4).
The word covering in verse 15 is yet another word that usually refers to a garment used as a covering. God gave a woman her hair as a type of garment. It is her “glory” like she is the “glory” of her husband. It is a symbol of her as the more beautiful and fairer gender. That is why removing it (v. 6) is disgraceful (or shameful). She would be considered manly with short or shaved hair, and it could also associate her with the female cult prostitutes who kept their hair short so they could wear their wigs. And again, today these are not the implications of these things, so short hair is in no way disgraceful for women today.
Paul then has to admonish the Corinthians for the instructions they were not heeding. The “come together” means that Paul is talking about a meeting for worship (vv. 17-18). Paul here tells them that when they come together, it isn’t good, but bad. First, those divisions are evident in the corporate worship service (v. 18 – see chapter 3). Paul implies that those who are divisive show themselves to be false converts (v. 19). Second, there are issues with Communion (v. 20). Paul is likely including in this the “love feast” that accompanied Communion in the early church. Some came and ate more than their share of the bread and drank more than their share of the wine, sometimes to the point of drunkenness (v. 21). As a result, those who had no food or drink because of their poverty went without (v. 22).
Paul then points to the purpose of Communion. Christ gave it as a gracious memorial of His completed work (vv. 23-26). The “unworthy” manner of verse 27 and the examination of verse 28 is speaking about the issue Paul pointed out in verses 20-22. This, too, is often plucked out of context and causes great confusion for many over whether they are “worthy” or not to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians needed to remember the reason they are coming together (v. 29). The reason is Christ. And some of those that abused the feast and the Supper had been killed by God for it (v. 30)! So we should judge (literally “discern”) ourselves, so we will not be judged (different word) by God (v. 31). And Paul is clear that those judged died physically but did not lose their salvation (v. 32). He encourages them to come together for the better, and not for the worse: judgment (v. 33 – see v. 17).
In chapter 12, Paul addresses spiritual gifts (12:1). He reminds them that when they were pagans, they worshiped mute idols (v. 2 – see chapters 8 and 10). The point is that God speaks. And He speaks through His people by the Spirit (v. 3). He also works through His people by the Spirit in various ways (vv. 4-6). And He works through each of His people (v. 7). There is no such thing as a Christian without a spiritual gift (or gifts). And these gifts are given for the building up of the church. Paul then gives a (non-exhaustive) list of gifts as examples (vv. 8-10). These are all how the Holy Spirit works through the church.
Paul then returns to the body metaphor (see chapters 6 and 10). Just as a body that is whole and functioning properly has many parts that make it so, so it is with the body of Christ (the church) (v. 12). And he tells us why: because in the Spirit we were baptized into one body (v. 13). Note two things here. First, the church is made up of spiritual people baptized in the Spirit – physical lineage or physical situation is irrelevant. Second, the baptism of the Spirit is what happens when we believe and are made part of the body. It is in no way a secondary or subsequent experience we should seek. Otherwise, since the body (the church) is made of those baptized by the Spirit, then those without this experience would not be part of the body, and therefore not be saved.
Paul then points out that every member of the body is essential (vv. 14-20). This should discourage every Christian from believing they have no responsibility to use their gifting for the betterment of the church. It should also encourage every Christian to believe that they are very bit as essential as their pastor and elders to their local body and the universal body. While some gifts mean more responsibility and may have a greater impact (v. 28), everyone – and every gift – is necessary (v. 27, 29-31). Paul encourages the Corinthians to earnestly desire the “greater” gifts. And he is not referring to the list he just gave, he is talking about how the gifts we have are used. We will see that tomorrow when we see the “more excellent way.”
1 There are ancient Greek medical books that state this to be the case.