1 Corinthians: The Troubled Church
The Origins of the Church at Corinth
On Paul’s second missionary journey, he had been divinely directed to Philippi, where a church was founded (Acts 16:11-40). From there Paul went to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), and then on to Berea (17:10-15). Next Paul journeyed to Athens (17:16-34), where his ministry was not as fruitful as it had been elsewhere, so after a time he moved on to Corinth, where he had a lengthy and fruitful ministry (18:1-18a).
When Paul arrived in Corinth, Silas and Timothy were not with him (18:5), but he did find a couple who were Jewish refugees from Rome – Aquila and Priscilla.388 Aquila was a tentmaker, like Paul, and so the two worked together at their trade. This seems to have limited the time and energy Paul could devote to preaching the gospel. Every Sabbath he would go to the synagogue and seek to persuade those attending to trust in Jesus as their Messiah. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia (18:5), they must have brought a contribution from the saints there (Philippians 4:15-16) because Paul was now able to devote himself completely to preaching the word.
Opposition to Paul’s preaching seems to have increased proportionately with the time he spent at the synagogue, and with the number of Jews and God-fearers who were coming to faith. When the Jews strongly opposed Paul’s teaching at the synagogue, he shook the dust from his garments and moved next door to the house of Titius Justus, a Gentile God-fearer, who seems to have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Even so there were a number of Jewish converts, including Crispus, the president of the synagogue, who believed, along with his entire household.389
As the opposition to Paul and his ministry became more intense, the apostle must have wondered when it would be time to leave Corinth and to press on to other cities. It was at this critical moment in time that God gave Paul direct guidance by means of a night vision. This vision must have been similar to the night vision God gave to Paul in Troas, when He directed him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10). In this “Corinthians vision,” God encouraged Paul and instructed him to remain on in Corinth:
9 The Lord said to Paul by a vision in the night, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, 10 because I am with you, and no one will assault you to harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So he stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 16:9-11).390
Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Corinth is not strictly chronological. Verses 12-17 of Acts 18 come earlier in Paul’s 18-month ministry, rather than at the end. The incident with Gallio does not necessitate Paul’s departure (which occurs some time later, see 18:18); rather, it is the means by which God fulfills His promise in the night vision to protect Paul and to give him a fruitful ministry in Corinth. Gallio’s ruling enabled Paul to remain on in Corinth without being harmed, under Rome’s protection. I believe this is why Luke includes this historic decision in Acts.
Because of the success of the gospel in Corinth, the Jews were beginning to feel threatened. No doubt a number of them severed their ties with the synagogue and identified themselves with Paul, who had moved his headquarters next door. Finally, the Jews determined to solve their problem legally, taking their case before Gallio, ruler of the province of Achaia. Their strategy was to persuade Gallio to make a legal distinction between Paul’s gospel and Judaism, in effect declaring Christianity to be a cult. If Christianity were to be divorced from Judaism, then it would no longer enjoy the protection of the Roman government. Christians could then be persecuted and driven out of Achaia, with no interference from the Roman government.
It all seemed like a brilliant scheme. The Jews brought Paul before Gallio and accused him of preaching a gospel that was contrary to the law, presumably Jewish law (see verse 15), but if so, then also contrary to the protections afforded by Roman law. The charges against Paul were similar to the charges the Jewish religious leaders brought against our Lord (see Luke 23:1-2, 13-14). The case against Paul was formally presented, and the time had come for Paul to speak in his defense. But before Paul could speak a word, Gallio interrupted. He is a man who seems to dislike Jews, and so Paul’s accusers found no favor with him. Gallio could see through the whole scheme, and he wanted to have no part of it. To him this was just one more squabble among Jews about the interpretation of their laws. He refused to take sides or to give a ruling; he just drove them out of his court. In effect, he refused to hear the case, albeit not until after the prosecution had its chance to make its case. Frustrated and angry, the Jews turned on Sosthenes, the president of the synagogue. It must have been his idea to seek a ruling from Gallio, and it had completely backfired. The Jews had lost ground by this maneuver. As Sosthenes was being beaten by the others, Gallio looked on, without any sympathy for Sosthenes or for the rest of them.
Gallio’s refusal to grant the Jews’ request established a very important legal precedent. It was similar to the United States Supreme Court refusing to hear a case on appeal. The effect of refusing to hear a case is to uphold the decision of the lower court. Thus, Gallio’s decision established the gospel Paul preached as a sect of the Jewish faith, a religion approved and protected by Roman law. Paul was a Roman citizen, and one who practiced (and preached) a religion Rome recognized and protected. Consequently Paul and others who went about preaching the gospel did so with Rome’s protection. Notice how Paul’s Roman citizenship protected him later on in Acts:
22 And they [the hostile Jewish crowd] listened to him [Paul] up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” 23 And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way. 25 And when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” 26 And when the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and told him, saying, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman.” 27 And the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 And the commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Paul said, “But I was actually born a citizen.” 29 Therefore those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains (Acts 22:22-29).
Isn’t it amazing the way God fulfills His promises? He promised Paul that he would not be harmed, and that there were many souls in Corinth who would come to faith. Who would have ever imagined that God would fulfill His promise by allowing the opposition to take Paul to court, and by the legal ruling of a Gentile ruler who despised Jews? This is nothing other than the handiwork of a sovereign God:
The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water;
he turns it wherever he wants (Proverbs 21:1).
Luke tells us in Acts 18:18 that Paul remained on in Corinth “many more days.” It was this ruling that enabled him to do so.
The Occasion For Writing 1 Corinthians
Paul spent at least 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11). When he left Corinth the apostle to the Gentiles made his way to Ephesus, where his initial ministry was very brief (Acts 18:19-21). Paul later returned to Ephesus where he stayed for three years (Acts 19:8-10; 20:31). It was during Paul’s second stay in Ephesus that he seems to have received a report that things were not going all that well in the church at Corinth. In response, Paul wrote his first (“lost”) letter to the church at Corinth, but it was never recorded in Scripture.
9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 In no way did I mean the immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person (1 Corinthians 5:9-11, emphasis mine).
While still in Ephesus, Paul heard from “some of Chloe’s people” (1:11) that there were divisions and quarrels in the church at Corinth. Paul also heard that there was a serious case of immorality in the church (5:1), and that some of the Corinthian saints were taking their brothers to court (6:1ff.). In addition, Paul received questions concerning marriage (7:1), virgins (7:25), foods sacrificed to idols (8:1ff.), spiritual gifts (12:1ff.) and more. While still in Ephesus (16:8), Paul wrote this first preserved letter to the Corinthians. It seeks to address some of the major problems in the church.
10 I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree together, to end your divisions, and to be united by the same mind and purpose. 11 For members of Chloe’s household have made it clear to me, my brothers and sisters, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “ I am with Paul,” or “ I am with Apollos,” or “ I am with Cephas,” or “ I am with Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12, emphasis mine).
It would appear from Paul’s words here that the schisms actually involved some the apostles, or at least their followers. I believe that this is not the case at all. We can see this from Paul’s words in chapter 4:
6 I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine).
Some of the other translations make this more apparent:
6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, NASB, emphasis mine).391
Paul supplied the names of his fellow-apostles to make his point without naming the real culprits at the moment. He may have decided to do this for several reasons. First, Paul wanted the Corinthians to identify these men themselves. Secondly, there might be others that Paul did not know of, or who might emerge after Paul wrote this letter. Perhaps, too, he was giving some of these folks the benefit of the doubt at this time.
Paul rebukes the Corinthians because there are divisions and quarrels in the church. This is the result of a religious snobbery associated by cliques that produced pride and conflict. Religious snobs want to be a part of a small group who think of themselves as the spiritual elite. They are proud and smug because of their associations, especially with their leader, and they look down upon those who are not in their group. The elitism evident in Corinth was based upon two things: (1) who they followed – who their leader was; and, (2) the message and method of their leader.
So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you (1 Corinthians 3:21).
I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine).
Note the element of pride here and also the element of divisiveness. The Corinthians were boasting of their close association with certain men, men they considered superior to others. By associating with them, the Corinthians felt superior to those who followed others. Taking pride in mere men was evil. If there was any boasting to be done, Paul reminded his readers that their boasting should be “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
The Corinthians had come to think too highly of themselves and of their newly discovered gurus with their sophisticated message and methods. In their elitist snobbery, they had begun to look down upon Paul and the other true apostles:
8 Already you are satisfied! Already you are rich! You have become kings without us! I wish you had become kings so that we could reign with you! 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, we are dishonored! 11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads. 12 We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, 13 when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).
It was not just the men (and their magnetic personalities) in whom the Corinthians boasted; it was also their message and their style of presentation. From the broader context we can infer that these charmers proclaimed a modified message, one that would eventually be exposed as a false gospel (see 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 11). In stark contrast, Paul’s message was simple: Christ crucified. His method was to proclaim in clear and simple words the truths of the gospel, rather than to use sophisticated trickery or manipulation:
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:21-25, emphasis mine).
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, as one who had been crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
In contrast to Paul’s message, method, and motives, the “charmers” attracted their followings by employing very different methods than those used by Paul and his fellow-apostles:
For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:17).
1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged. 2 But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
The Corinthians would do well not to prematurely appraise themselves and others, and wait until the coming of the Lord:
1 People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
If the Corinthians thought of themselves as “the elite,” then they had certainly forgotten their origins and the true source and object of their boasting:
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
How could one boast in anything or anyone else? Whatever we are or have, we have received it from Him:
For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Paul ends this first section by informing the Corinthians that he is sending Timothy to them, who will remind them of Paul’s ways and teaching (1 Corinthians 4:16-17). Soon, Paul will also be coming to Corinth. They would do well to deal with these matters before he arrives, so that he will not have to correct these problems himself:
18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. 21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4:18-21)
There is one thing about these sinful divisions that can be positive. Divisions provide the occasion for those who are wise and godly to stand out. Divisions may be caused by corrupt leaders, but they also tend to expose true leaders:
For there must in fact be divisions among you so that those of you who are approved may be evident (1 Corinthians 11:19).
The Corinthians divided when they should have preserved Christian unity, and they were united when they should have divided. The main topic in chapters 5-7 pertains to sexual conduct. In chapter 5, Paul calls the church’s attention to the man in their midst who is living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. This situation called for separation, for a kind of division. The man carried on his sin publicly, before the church (Did he bring this wife to church?) and before the unsaved in Corinth. The heathen Corinthians were shocked by this kind of conduct, and yet the man did not repent. What is even worse, the saints in the church had apparently not even rebuked him. Somehow, instead of grieving over this terrible sin, they were puffed up with pride about it:
1 It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
Paul exercises discipline from a distance, and then reminds the church that separation is not to be from the world, but from those who profess Christ while persisting in the willful practice of sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). In short, the Corinthians were not responsible for judging unbelievers outside the church, but they should have judged this sinner in their midst.
It is no accident that Paul moves from the man who went unjudged in chapter 5 to those saints who were taking each other to court in chapter 6:
1 When any of you has a legal dispute with another, does he dare go to court before the unrighteous rather than before the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you not competent to settle trivial suits? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary matters! 4 So if you have ordinary lawsuits, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame! Is there no one among you wise enough to settle disputes between fellow Christians? 6 Instead, does a Christian sue a Christian, and do this before unbelievers? 7 The fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves demonstrates that you have already been defeated. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 But you yourselves wrong and cheat, and you do this to your brothers and sisters! (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)
The Corinthian church would not fulfill its responsibility to pass judgment on a man whose conduct shocked the pagan Corinthians (chapter 5), and yet they were going to court with one another, before the eyes of unbelievers. In both chapters 5 and 6, sin in the church was being practiced before the eyes of the unbelievers in Corinth. Here were divisions that reached the level of civil suits. Paul indicates that these differences between believers could have, and should have, been settled privately in the church. If that could not happen, it would have been better for the brother who was wronged to take the loss, rather than to seek compensation in court.
The hypocrisy in Corinth is mind-boggling. In chapter 5, sin is boldly practiced in church and in society, and no one bothers to rebuke or correct this man. Indeed, the Corinthians are proud of themselves for doing nothing about it. But when one saint takes the least advantage of another, they are quickly taken to court to be judged for their wrongdoing. It is not that the Corinthians refused to judge; it is that they only sought judgment when it served their own interests.
Paul reminds the Corinthians saints of the severe eternal consequences of sin and of the fact that when they were saved, they were cleansed and delivered from their bondage to sin (6:9-11). He now lays down a very important principle:
“All things are lawful for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “All things are lawful for me”—but I will not be controlled by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Paul cannot be saying here that everything is lawful. He is not saying, for example, “Murder is lawful, and so is robbery and using cocaine.” He has just given a list of some of the sins which condemn the one who persists in practicing them:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Certainly these things are not right! I believe that Paul is saying, “True, everything that is lawful I could (in theory) practice within the law. I could drink alcohol, and I could smoke a cigarette.” The question the Christian should ask is this, “Is this practice beneficial? Will it prove to be spiritually profitable?” Or, put another way, “Will this practice bring me under bondage?” Just because I can do something (legally, or biblically) does not mean that I should do it. Even marriage, Paul will soon show, is something that some saints might choose to forego, for the sake of God’s kingdom.
In the remaining verses of chapter 6, Paul mentions some of the bodily appetites which we all have. Humans desire and require nourishment. We should remember that both food and our bodies are temporal, and thus temporary. Just being hungry is not a compelling reason to eat, especially if it is not profitable. This is why our Lord refused to yield to Satan’s temptation to command stones to become bread:
3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:3-4).
Humans also have a built-in sexual appetite. This appetite does not mean that we are right to satisfy it any way we wish. Specifically, we are not free to practice immorality. This is a sin against our body, and a sin against the Spirit Who indwells us. It is also a sin against Him Who bought us with the blood of His Son:
18 Flee sexual immorality! Every sin a person commits is outside of the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
If the last part of chapter 6 deals with sex and immorality, in chapter 7 Paul answers questions concerning sex and marriage. Apparently there were those who concluded that sex was dirty, no matter what the context. He begins by warning married couples about unnecessary sexual abstinence, because it will become a source of sexual temptation. Their lack of self-control will get them into trouble, Paul says. Unnecessary abstinence will become a source of temptation for us to engage in illicit, extramarital sex. Sex in the confines of marriage is healthy and advantageous; sex outside of marriage is sinful and dangerous.
4 Marriage must be honored among all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for sexually immoral people and adulterers God will judge (Hebrews 13:4).
Paul then moves to the subject of divorce. Apparently there were those who were tempted to pursue happiness by seeking to change their circumstances, in this case by changing their marriage partner. Paul gives married couples clear instruction to remain in their marriages, with only rare exceptions (7:10-16). In general, one should stay in the circumstances in which Christ found them and saved them (7:17-24). Given the difficult circumstances of that day, Paul encourages the saints not to be so distracted by earthly matters (including family) that heavenly things are given second place (7:25-31). There may be some who have sufficient self-control that they will be able to remain single and sexually pure. If so, Paul encourages such people to remain single, so that they may be free to devote themselves more fully to serving Christ (7:32-35).
Chapters 8 through 10 of 1 Corinthians deal with the question of meats offered to idols. In truth, there is no question at all. That matter had been settled at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and this decree would have been conveyed to all the churches, including Corinth:
28 For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: 29 that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell (Acts 15:28-29; see also 21:25).
Nevertheless, we find that the issue does come up at Corinth:
1 With regard to food sacrificed to idols, we know that “we all have knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If someone thinks he knows something, he does not yet know to the degree that he needs to know. 3 But if someone loves God, he is known by God. 4 With regard then to eating food sacrificed to idols, we know that “an idol in this world is nothing,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 If after all there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we live, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we live (1 Corinthians 8:1-6).
Here is an example of the kind of “wisdom” that was prized and practiced by the would-be elite in the Corinthian church. Their reasoning went like this:
There is but one God, and no others. Thus, idols, which represent other gods, are really nothing. Therefore meats sacrificed to idols can hardly be contaminated, so I am free to eat these meats.
The argument sounded profound and compelling to some of the Corinthians. For one thing, it sounds so spiritual. They are professing faith in only one God, and acknowledging that all the other Greek gods are not gods at all. Better yet (for the meat-loving Corinthians), it is an argument that seems to skillfully set aside the decree set down by the Jerusalem church leaders.
Why doesn’t Paul squelch this line of reasoning immediately? Why does he let their argument stand? Paul allows their reasoning to stand momentarily to show how the “wisdom” of some in the church worked itself out. It sounded good. It justified eating forbidden meats. And it seemed to set aside the very “narrow” ruling of the Jerusalem church leaders. But in the end, it was merely sophisticated reasoning which justified disobedience.
It is not until chapter 10 that Paul exposes this error for what it is. For the moment, however, he allows their reasoning to go unchallenged. They have concluded that it is acceptable for them to eat meats offered to idols.
“Fine,” Paul responds, “let’s grant your premise for a few moments.” “Even if you had the right to eat meats offered to idols, that right should not be exercised if doing so would cause a weaker brother (who believes eating these meats is sin) to stumble.” “Even if this practice were lawful (which, in truth, it is not), you should not do it because of others.”
I wonder here if Paul is taking up the principle he set down in chapter 6, and which is taken up again in chapter 10:
12 “All things are lawful for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “All things are lawful for me”—but I will not be controlled by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
23 “Everything is lawful,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is lawful,” but not everything builds others up (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Using the fancy logic of the all-wise teachers they have chosen to follow, everything does seem to be lawful, even the things that are clearly not lawful (like eating meat offered to idols). Even if something were lawful, it is not necessarily beneficial, for the one who does it, or for the one who sees it done.
Now, in chapter 9, Paul seeks to illustrate the kind of spirit the Corinthians should have toward their “liberties.” He demonstrates how a Christian can sacrifice his liberties for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of others. Paul chooses himself and Barnabas as examples, and uses the right to be supported in ministry as the right they will surrender. The Bible clearly teaches that those who devote themselves to ministry have the right to be supported in their ministry. The other apostles – except for Paul and Barnabas – chose to exercise that right. Paul sets his right to support aside, not because it is wrong, but because it will further the cause of the gospel. (No one can ever accuse Paul, or Barnabas, of preaching for their own gain, thus giving credibility to their message and ministry.) The Corinthians should imitate Paul and Barnabas in surrendering their liberties when it will benefit others and advance the cause of the gospel.
It is not until chapter 10 that Paul challenges the Corinthians’ “right” to eat meat offered to idols. He does not cite the decree of the Jerusalem Council. Instead, he points out the incompatibility or incongruity of the “table” of the pagan ritual with the Lord’s Table:
14 So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. 18 Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? 19 Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? 20 No, I mean that what people sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or are we trying to provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we really stronger than he is? (1 Corinthians 10:14-22)
For the “liberated” Corinthians, to partake of meats offered to idols was to participate in the heathen ritual – the worship of heathen gods – in which the meat was sacrificed. Paul reminds us that while there may not be other gods, there are demons, and they are very much involved in heathen worship. Christians who sit weekly at the Lord’s Table should have no part in the heathen rituals in which meat is offered to idols. The “liberty” so cleverly reasoned out in chapter 8 is no liberty at all. Eating meats offered to idols is strictly forbidden if it involves participation in the heathen ritual itself.
But what about merely eating meat that was offered to idols, without attending or participating in the heathen worship ritual? Paul tells the Corinthians that they are not to be obsessed with the fear of unwittingly eating such meats, either (1 Corinthians 10:25-30). Eat what is sold in the marketplace, without interrogating the butcher about the origin of the meat. If you go to a neighbor’s house and meat is served, eat it without raising agonizing questions. But if someone troubles himself to tell you that the meat was offered to an idol, then abstain from eating it, more for that person’s sake than for your own.
In chapters 11-14, Paul deals with problems in Corinth that have to do with the gathering of the saints for church. In chapter 11, Paul deals with two major problems. The first has to do with the different roles of men and women in the church. The second has to do with misconduct at the Lord’s Table.
I believe that the Corinthian culture, like our own, resisted and rejected the roles that were assigned to men and women in the church. The main principle in the first 16 verses of chapter 11 is that of spiritual headship. Just as God is the head of Christ and Christ is the head of every man, so the husband has been given headship over his wife. The wife is not to conduct herself in a way that draws attention to herself and thus deprives her husband of his glory. The wife is to be her husband’s glory, and she is not to seek glory for herself. In the context, she is to cover her head, which is her glory.
The second half of chapter 11 deals with misconduct at the Lord’s Table. When the early church met to observe the Lord’s Table, they did so in the midst of a shared (potluck?) meal. It would seem that the rich arrived at church earlier than the poor. Instead of waiting for the poor to arrive before beginning the meal, some of the Corinthians began to gorge themselves with food and wine. By the time the poor arrived, the food was gone, and those who arrived early were drunk. The result was that the Lord’s Table – the most solemn event of the church’s gathering – was conducted in a way that must have been similar to the heathen rituals the Corinthian saints were forbidden to attend. Because of the seriousness of this sin, a number of the Corinthians had become ill, and some had died (11:30). Paul instructs the Corinthians to wait for one another, to search their hearts, and to commemorate the Lord’s Supper in a manner befitting the body and blood of our Lord.
Chapters 12 through 14 focus on the subject of spiritual gifts. In chapter 12, Paul teaches that every Christian is given at least one spiritual gift. These gifts are sovereignly bestowed, as He wills (not by our manipulation, or in accordance with our fleshly desires). No one possesses all of the spiritual gifts, and no gift is possessed by all. These gifts give every Christian a unique and vital role to play as a member of the body of Christ. Each gift is designed to contribute to the health and growth of the body, so that whenever anyone fails to exercise their gift(s) the whole body suffers.
In the Corinthian church, certain gifts were valued above others. In particular, the gift of tongues seems to have been viewed as the greatest gift, so that all were striving to get it, and those who did not have it felt inferior and useless to the body. Paul turns the tables on those who sought to elevate the gift of tongues above all others by declaring that it was the lesser gifts that were given “more honor” to compensate for their apparent insignificance. In so doing, Paul turned their spiritual scale of values upside-down. It is the less visible gifts that are the most valuable, just as it is the invisible organs of our bodies (kidneys, liver, heart, brain) that are most valuable to us.
In chapter 13, Paul turns to the essential ingredient of love. It is love that makes our gifts and service beneficial to others. Gifts that are not exercised in love are not only useless, but annoying (“a clanging cymbal” – 13:1). Love causes us to seek to employ our spiritual gifts for the edification of others, rather than for the exaltation of self.
Chapter 14 returns to the subject of spiritual gifts and their use in the church meeting. Paul shows that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues, unless tongues are interpreted. Unless tongues are interpreted, their value is minimal to the speaker personally, or to the church. If tongues are uninterpreted, then those who hear cannot understand what was said, and thus they cannot be edified. Only the speaker is edified, and if he or she cannot interpret what was said, they gain little as well.
Paul now lays down the guiding principle for the exercise of spiritual gifts in the gathering of the church, the principle of edification:
12 It is the same with you. Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen [edify] the church. . . . 26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening [edification] of the church (1 Corinthians 14;12, 26; see also Ephesians 4:29).
There is another guiding principle set down in 1 Corinthians 14:
And do everything in a decent and orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40; see also 14:33).
An orderly meeting is one in which there is a balance of participation and a decorum that is maintained. There is to be no interrupting or clamoring for the podium. There is not to be an imbalance in the kinds of participation (two or no more than three in any category of speaking). There is to be silence when the saints will not be edified (as in the speaking of tongues without an interpreter, or when the same gift has been repeatedly exercised). The women are to remain silent in the church meeting. They are not to exercise headship, and thus they are not to “take the floor” to speak or to lead.392 They are to remain quiet. And if any would quibble with these restrictions, Paul wants his readers to know that this is his consistent teaching and practice:
17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some have become puffed up, as if I were not coming to you (1 Corinthians 4:17-18).393
If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says (1 Corinthians 14:33b-34).
The doctrine of the resurrection, as Paul shows, is an essential part of the gospel. You cannot set aside this doctrine without undermining the entire gospel. It is one of the essentials we must believe in order to be saved:
1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; see also Romans 10:9-10).
Paul goes to great lengths to show that the resurrection of Christ was a historical reality. Jesus literally, bodily, rose from the dead. If the first Adam brought on mankind the sentence of death, the last Adam has triumphed over death. This is the basis for our hope as Christians.
Paul’s lengthy treatment of the doctrine of the resurrection also points us to the core of all the problems of the church at Corinth – human pride and fleshly self-indulgence. What are the practical implications of believing that there is no resurrection of the dead? Paul tells us:
If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 34 Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God—I say this to your shame!
To deny the resurrection of the dead means that there is no future hope; it also means that there will be no future judgment. If this were the case, one should certainly not live dangerously, as did Paul and the true apostles. To the contrary, one might as well “eat, drink, and be merry” because there may be no tomorrow. If “we only go around once,” as the television commercial used to put it, “then we’d better grab all the gusto we can get.”
Smug pride and self-indulgence is found everywhere in the Book of 1 Corinthians. Chapters 1-4 dealt with divisions in the church. What was the basis of these divisions? People sought to indulge themselves with status and significance by identifying with leaders who made them feel good, and proud. They boasted in men, rather than in God. They found the teaching of these men to be more exciting and attractive than the simple message of the cross. They loved the appearance of worldly wisdom through philosophical reasoning and homiletical rhetoric. Their new cliques puffed them up, and they indulged themselves in their newly found status (4:7, 18). The problem is that they looked with pride on false apostles, while they looked with disdain on the sufferings and humble service of men like Paul (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
Smug self-indulgence was also the underlying factor in chapters 5-7. The Corinthians did not hesitate to take one another to court in chapter 6, but they failed to discipline one of their own for living in a way that shocked the heathen. Paul tells us that they were proud of the fact that they were not disciplining him (5:6). What was there to be proud about? All we need to do is to look around today. Some churches are proud that they have cast aside the fetters of apostolic teaching, and they revel in the feminism they have embraced in its place. Some churches boast that they perform homosexual marriages along with heterosexual unions. Their “new theology” permits them to “practice what they preach,” and what they preach is self-indulgence. No wonder Paul condemned divorce and immorality, while churches then and today support people in their sin, and as they sin.
Self-indulgence is at the center of the issue concerning meats offered to idols in chapters 8-10. Knowing the apostolic decree that the Gentiles should abstain from meats offered to idols, some of the Corinthian “new school of wisdom and rhetoric” concocted the teaching we see in chapter 8 that permitted (in their minds) the eating of meats offered to idols. Paul responded by reminding them of their responsibility to set aside their rights for the sake of their weaker brother. He then pointed out that even the heathen denied certain bodily appetites for some goal like winning a race:
24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Then Paul followed up with a brief review of Israel’s failures in the Old Testament in the early verses of chapter 10. God was displeased with most of the Israelites because they resisted self-denial and pursued self-indulgence:
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness. 6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did. 7 So do not be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 And let us not be immoral, as some of them were, and twenty-three thousand died in a single day. 9 And let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes. 10 And do not complain, as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall. 13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).
The problems in the church meeting described in chapters 11-14 were also rooted in self-indulgence. Look, for example, at chapter 11. The first half of the chapter deals with the roles of men and women. The reason Paul had to reiterate his teaching on the conduct of women is because women sought to indulge themselves in glory that should have gone to their husbands, and ultimately to Christ. The last part of chapter 11 is clearly a problem of self-indulgence. Some of the saints refused to wait for others, so that they gorged themselves with food and drink, and the Lord’s Table began to resemble a heathen idol-worship ritual.
The same self-indulgence can be seen in the practice of spiritual gifts, which is described in chapters 12-14. Certain gifts attracted more attention and were more highly esteemed then others, so the Corinthians all sought to abandon their sovereignly bestowed gifts in order to acquire the “better gifts.” The problem is that they did not understand which the better gifts were. The better gifts were not those that made them feel better and look more spiritual than others; they were the unseen gifts that edified the whole body. The church meeting was chaotic because of the frantic efforts of the Corinthians to indulge themselves by their attention-seeking participation in the church meeting. No wonder Paul devoted one chapter of the epistle (13) to the essential ingredient of love. It is love that prompts one to deny himself and to serve others sacrificially.
Finally, as we noted, a denial of the doctrine of the resurrection inclines us to cease to live for eternity and to endeavor to fill the cup of earthly pleasure to the brim: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”
What does Paul’s letter to the Corinthians have to say to Christians today? It is difficult not to see that the church today (at least in America) is a very self-indulgent church. There are many divisions in the church, and a great deal of boasting in things other than our Savior. People choose the church they attend for very self-indulgent reasons. We tend to find our status and our identity in terms of the leader we follow, all the while looking down on those who follow another.
As we leave this great epistle of 1 Corinthians, let me underscore some of the guiding principles which Paul has highlighted in the course of this letter:
(1) No teaching, no matter how amazing it may seem, should ever take us outside the boundaries of the Word of God:
I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “ not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine).
(2) Our boasting must never be in men, but only in God.
So that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
(3) We should not seek our own glory, but the glory of God.
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
(4) We should not seek our own good, but the good of others.
Do not seek your own good, but the good of the other person (1 Corinthians 10:24).
32 Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but that of many, so that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).
12 If you sin against your brothers or sisters in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 For this reason, if food causes my brother or sister to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause one of them to sin (1 Corinthians 8:12-13).
(5) Just because something is lawful, does not mean that it is profitable, to me or to others.
“All things are lawful for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “All things are lawful for me”—but I will not be controlled by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
“Everything is lawful,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is lawful,” but not everything builds others up (1 Corinthians 10:23).
387 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 98 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 13, 2002.
388 Priscilla is also called Prisca in 1 Corinthians 16:19.
389 See Acts 18:8. It is interesting to notice that in Acts 18:17 it is Sosthenes who is the president of the synagogue. It would appear that Crispus was replaced by Sosthenes. Perhaps this was because Crispus became a believer and chose to continue to associate with Paul.
390 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
391 See also KJV and NKJV. The term is used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:13 and 15 to describe the false apostles who disguise themselves as true apostles, and in 2 Corinthians 11:14 to describe Satan, who disguises himself as an angel of light.
392 In 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4, women are instructed not to dress in a way that makes them the center of attention. This is also dealt with in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul gives instructions regarding head coverings.
393 There are those who would assert that Paul’s words to women in 1 Corinthians are addressed only to these “Corinthian women,” and not to women in general. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 11:14; and 14:33b-37 indicate otherwise, in the clearest of terms.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)