The church in Corinth was beset by problems — divided into rich and poor, sophisticated and simple, the talented and the average. Some members claimed to have special knowledge that Paul did not have. They began to look down on his simple message about a man who was killed by the Romans. They wrote him a letter asking for more information on several topics, and Paul learned even more about the church in Corinth from people who had been there.
Paul’s reply is now known as 1 Corinthians. He begins, as ancient letters normally did, by saying who he was and naming the people he was writing to: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth” (vv. 1-2, New Revised Standard Version in this chapter).
He then reminds them of who they are: “To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (v. 2). They are called to be holy, but they are also called to be part of a larger group. That will be important later in the letter.
Greek letters usually began with chara, greetings, but Paul modifies this to charis (grace) and peace (the typical Jewish greeting): “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Greek orators would often begin a speech by praising the audience, but Paul modifies this to praise God for what he is doing in the readers: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (vv. 3-6).
The Corinthian Christians prided themselves on their speaking and their knowledge. Paul acknowledges these as blessings from God, and as evidence in support of the gospel of Christ. He will address the misuse of these gifts later in the letter.
Since God has been generous to them, he writes: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 7-8). Paul here subtly reminds them to stick firmly to their original faith, rather than accepting odd new doctrines. Don’t forget that salvation depends on Christ!
A divided congregation
He begins with a plea for unity: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (v. 10). Perfect agreement is pointless if it means that everyone believes the same heresy. So in this letter Paul will try to set them on the right track.
Paul had heard that the congregation was divided into different groups, some claiming to follow one leader, and some another (vv. 11-12). But Paul didn’t want even his own name to be an excuse for division: “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (vv. 13-15).
But then Paul stops to correct himself: “(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else)” (v. 16). Paul could have edited his original mistake out, but he left it in as an illustration of how unimportant it was to keep track of who did the actual baptism.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (v. 17). Paul baptized people — and he assumed that all the readers had been baptized — but the gospel was his priority. The message centered on Christ, not on a ritual. Paul wanted to persuade people with the facts, not with the flowery oratory that some Greek philosophers used to attract a following.
God’s power and wisdom
The message about a crucified Messiah might seem preposterous to some people, but God uses that message to bring salvation to those who believe. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). Paul then quotes Isa. 29:14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” God works in unexpected ways — some people might say that the gospel of grace is a message of weakness, but Paul says it is a message of power (Rom. 1:16).
“Where is the one who is wise?” Paul asks. Most are not in the church. Where is the teacher of the law? Most are not accepting the message of salvation. Where are the philosophers? Not here. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
Humans value education, but God’s message does not depend on human approval. People cannot know God through their own intelligence, and they cannot save themselves by any amount of philosophy or study. Instead, God decided to save people who believed the gospel (v. 21).
“Jews demand signs [miracles] and Greeks desire wisdom [philosophy], but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vv. 22-24). The message is too simple for some people, but God uses it to save his people.
The crucified Christ may look weak and foolish, but this is the power and wisdom of God. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25). This is the basis of unity in the church: accepting the gospel of Christ crucified — people being saved by the shameful death of Christ.
The wisdom of God
Remember that you were ordinary people when you heard the gospel, Paul says. You were not the movers and shakers of Corinth. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (vv. 27-29).
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All scripture quotations are taken from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2005 and was updated in 2013.
If people could save themselves through their own intelligence, then the kingdom of God would be filled with people who were proud of their own accomplishments. If people could get in through their own abilities, they would think that they were just as good as God.
So God decided to call the nobodies of this world, those who were willing to admit their need, those who were willing to accept the gift of salvation. And this plan will eventually shame the wise and humiliate the proud, who will then be able to realize that their own strength, no matter how good it was, was not good enough.
Because of God’s plan, Paul writes, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (vv. 30-31, quoting from Jer. 9:24). Jesus is our righteousness — it is in him, and only in him, that we can be righteous and holy. Only when we are in Christ, united with him by faith, can we be redeemed. We cannot boast about anything we did — our only boast is in what Christ does for us. He gets the credit and the praise.
- In what way has God enriched you? (v. 5).
- How can people be perfectly united in mind and thought? (v. 10)
- Is v. 14 an inspired mistake?
- Can the wise and wealthy accept the unexpected wisdom of God? (v. 20)
- If Christ is our righteousness, do we need any of our own? (v. 30)