James Gray - Concise Bible Commentary
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,1 Corinthians 1:1-4:21
THE CAUSE AND CURE OF DISPUTES
This epistle was written by Paul probably during the latter part of his long visit to Ephesus, and it will add interest to its study to re-read Acts 18-20, which speak of his visit to both cities, Ephesus and Corinth. The occasion for its writing, as given in 1 Corinthians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 7:1, was a visit to Paul of a member “of the house of Chloe,” who brought a written communication to him as well as verbal reports of conditions in the church. These conditions were not good, as indicated in their party divisions (chaps. 1-4), their tolerance of gross immorality (chaps. 5-6), their erroneous views in regard to marriage (chap. 7), their abuse of Christian liberty (chaps. 8-10), their disorderly conduct in the assemblies of worship (chaps. 11-14) and their false teaching touching the resurrection of the dead.
Indeed, as one carefully reads the epistle he wonders how such people could be Christians at all, until he recalls the distinction, made clear in the New Testament, between the believer’s legal standing before God in Christ, and his actual walk or experience in it. As we saw in Romans, the moment one believes on Christ, he becomes justified from all sin, i.e., the condemnatory guilt of it is removed, he receives a righteousness from God which perfectly satisfies God, and he is adopted into the Divine family. But now the work of grace begins in Him by the Holy Spirit, in distinction from the work of grace wrought for him by Christ on the cross, and in the measure in which he comes to know the will of God through His Word, and yields himself thereto, he becomes more and more conformed to the image of Christ. These Corinthians may have been in Christ, but they were walking inconsistently, and the purpose of this epistle is to set them right, and to set us right through them.
FALSE DIVISIONS, FALSE TEACHERS, AND GOSPEL TRUTH (1 Corinthians 1-3)
After the salutation (1 Corinthians 1:1-3) and the thanksgiving on their behalf (1 Corinthians 1:4-9), the apostle enters into the difficulty of their party divisions. Some were Paulinians, some Apollonians, some Cephasites, and some, perhaps the most contentious of all, Christites. Paul was innocent of fomenting these discords (1 Corinthians 1:14-17), and so doubtless had been Apollos and Cephas, but the root of the matter lay in the false intellectualism of the Corinthians. They were Greeks for the most part, and the Greeks gloried in human philosophy and worldly wisdom. Applying those principles to the teaching of Christianity had made all the trouble.
In meeting the situation, Paul shows in three ways that the Gospel is not human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 3:4): (1) by the mystery of the cross, which “is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved, the power of God.” “The wisdom of the wise” had been unable to save men in the past, but the preaching of the cross had effectually accomplished it 1 Corinthians 1:18-25); (2) by the elements composing the church, which were not for the most part the worldly-wise and great, but the opposite. God had made Christ to be unto them wisdom however, in the sense that He had become their righteousness, and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:26-31); (3) by the apostle’s own example, who had not appealed to their intellectualism, but had simply preached Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). This last point must be guarded though, as there was danger of men esteeming the gospel to be destitute of wisdom of any kind; and (4) it is therefore shown to be the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:7); which only the Spirit of God could reveal to men (1 Corinthians 2:8-11), but which had been revealed to Paul, and was being revealed through him to others (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). Only the spiritually enlightened however, were capable of receiving it (1 Corinthians 2:13 to 1 Corinthians 3:4).
In the verses last indicated, Paul speaks of three classes of men, the “natural,” the “spiritual” and the “carnal.” The first is man considered as fallen and unsaved; the second, as he who is saved and, being filled with the Spirit, is walking in fellowship with God; the third is saved, but still walking “after the flesh,” a “babe” in Christ.
But the Corinthians had not only a false view of the Gospel, confounding it with human wisdom, but also a false view of their Christian teachers which had contributed to their divisions. Paul deals with this beginning at 1 Corinthians 3:5 to 1 Corinthians 4:2 : (1) Christian teaches are simply ministers (1 Corinthians 3:5-11), whose reward depends on their faithfulness (1 Corinthians 3:12-15); and (2) the church should not glory in them, for out of Christ their wisdom is foolishness, and in Christ, they are all alike the possession of the whole church (1 Corinthians 3:16 to 1 Corinthians 4:2). In connection with the reference to rewards (1 Corinthians 3:14-15), remember that the subject applies only to those who are already saved by grace, and it is grace to which any saved soul is indebted for reward.
These divisions somehow involved a question of Paul’s apostolic authority, and to its defense he applies himself to the end of the lesson: (1) all human estimates of men are inadequate, and for a just judgment we must await the Lord’s second coming (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Another calls attention here to the interesting point that four standards of judgment are referred to, those of our friends, the world, ourselves, and the Lord. Our own judgment is not to be depended upon absolutely, any more than that of other people; (2) the question of his authority had arisen out of the vanity of their hearts (1 Corinthians 4:6-8). They were “puffed up” and vainglorious now that he was absent from them, and having begun to apply their worldly wisdom to the Gospel, they felt that they could get along without him, and boasted to it. They felt themselves to be “full” and “rich,” and reigning “as kings” without him. There is irony, and yet an earnest longing in the words, “I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you,” his allusion being to the second coming of Christ; (3) the apostles, himself doubtless being chiefly in mind, were objects of contempt and suffering to the world both of angels and of men (1 Corinthians 4:9-13) a testimony that other intelligences than ourselves, both good and evil doubtless, are interesting in the working out of God’s purpose of redemption through His church; and (4) His motive in thus writing was to warn them as his children in Christ, for which reason he was soon to send Timothy to them and would ultimately visit them himself again. Upon their reception of this admonition would depend whether he would come to them “with a rod, or in love and the spirit of meekness.”
1. What is the theme of this lesson?
2. When and where was this epistle written by Paul?
3. What was its occasion?
4. Describe conditions in this church?
5. Harmonize these conditions with the Christian profession.
6. In what did the root of their party divisions lie?
7. In what three ways does the apostle meet the situation?
8. How is the third point guarded?
9. Discriminate among the three classes of men.
10. What further had contributed to these party divisions?
11. In what two ways is this met?
12. How does Paul defend his apostolic authority?