Posts Tagged '1 Corinthians'

1 Corinthians, Part 2


I have long said that the greatest gift God gave human beings, outside of salvation, is the ability to make choices; our free will. No other creation has a free will. Animals are slaves to their instincts; we are free to make choices. Of course, without Christ, all people are slaves to sin, but they still have a free will – they can choose which sin to commit and when.

For the Christian, our glorious free will is a double-edged sword. It brings to mind a famous saying that nobody is exactly sure who said first:

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Some people attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. The rule of thumb is this: If you’re not sure who said what, always stick with Churchill. Whoever said it, it’s true. We have this free will but we have a tremendous responsibility to use it to make the right choices and the choices that result in God being glorified.

Paul had a lot to say about this to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 8, he devotes considerable time to the matter of Christian liberty in regard to eating meat which had been offered to idols. It seems odd to us today, but this was problem splitting the Christian community in Corinth. Today we have different grades of steak for example, and back in Paul’s day they also had different grades of steak, the top grade being steaks that came from the local pagan temple – steaks that had been part of an offering made to one pagan god or another. Naturally, we don’t have this problem today, but the principle laid down by Paul is brilliant and stands the test of time –

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV)

In other words, even if something is neutral, don’t do it if it causes a “weak brother” to stumble. So we have a free will, and we have great freedom in Christ, but there is a limitation on our liberty if our liberty causes another distress.

Actually, Paul touches on this important issue several times in 1 Corinthians; obviously it was a big problem there. Here’s how he stated it earlier in his letter –

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12 NIV)

And later –

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23, 24 NIV)

Verse 24 is really the key: nobody should seek only their own good, but we should be mindful of others and what’s good for them.  That delicious steak from the pagan temple down the road may be your favorite, and there may be nothing wrong with it, but if you enjoying it causes another believer to stumble, then you’d be wise to settle for a Philly steak and cheese sandwich when he’s around.  It’s a bummer for sure, but it’s the right thing to do.

Paul was one who practiced what he preached. As an apostle and itinerant preacher, he had rights like any apostle or any itinerant preacher – the right to feed himself and cloth himself; the right to be paid for his ministry. But apparently his right to payment had caused problems in the Corinthian church, and so after laying down the general principle we noted a moment ago, Paul then applied to himself –

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:18 NIV)

If getting a check for his services was causing problems, then Paul was more than willing to forego the check and preach for free to keep the peace. That’s the apostle practicing the very principle he had laid down for the Corinthians to practice. In verse 19 he goes a little further –

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (1 Corinthians 9:19 NIV)

That’s Paul, the libertarian writing! He had all this freedom, yet he willingly reigned it in when he had to so as to win as many converts as he could; for no other reason. But this was not an idea that originated with Paul; it’s a Biblical idea that even our Lord practiced in His earthly ministry –

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:17, 18 NIV)

Freedom from all, slave to all.

Paul had all this freedom, he owed no man or group of people anything, yet he willingly conformed himself to certain groups in order to save them. The four “groups” included: Jews, those under the law, those without the law, and the weak.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)

Paul’s being “all things to all people” did not destroy his conscience before God. He was able to avoid legalism (9:20) and libertinism (9:21). What seemed by some to be compromise or weakness on Paul’s part was in reality the exercise of his Christ-centered ministry. Some people misunderstood him, but Paul knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.

Self-control is the key

The key in winning people for Christ, and the key in living a life that is righteous and that glorifies God is self-control. Self-control is essential in using your free will properly. The Corinthians had shown that they had very little self-control. They got the “freedom and liberty” part of the Gospel right, but not the “self-control” part.

To help them understand what they needed to do to correct their lack of self-control, he wrote this –

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV)

Self-control is at the very heart of winning the race of life. It takes self-control to live mindful of the needs of a weaker brother, for example, and to choose to reign in your freedom. It takes self-control to not eat the better cut of steak. It takes self-control to preach a sermon and not take payment.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. (1 Corinthians 9:26 NIV)

Paul fought smart. He used his mind, he kept a cool head. Paul took many things into consideration. Most Christians don’t. Most Christians are like inexperienced boxers, flailing around, looking ridiculous, punching at nothing, never landing a spiritual knockout. The Corinthians were like that.

Being wide awake and self-controlled isn’t easy; it takes considerable effort, as Paul well understood –

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV)

Paul was a man who had been gloriously set free from the law and from the guilt of his sins. He loved the new freedom he had in Christ. But he loved to win even more. So he was willing to do what it took to win the race of life.

Up to this point, Paul has shown us that an excessive stress on Christian freedom can present a stumbling block to weaker Christians. Not only that, to always insist on your own personal liberty – to always claim your rights – can be a detriment to the ministry of God’s Word. With chapter 10, he continues this idea with a new problem added to the mix: an undue display of personal liberty may cause spiritual decay and could lead to big problems in your own Christian experience.

A warning from history

You can learn a lot about the present from looking at the past. So Paul turned to some Hebrew history –

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. (1 Corinthians 10:1 NIV)

Whenever Paul says things like, “I don’t want you to be ignorant” to somebody, he knows they really are ignorant. The church at Corinth was a large church made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and Paul is talking to the Jewish part of the church. They, along with Paul, shared a common history; they all descended from people, Israel, who had escaped from Egyptian slavery by crossing the Red Sea.

They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:2 – 5 NIV)

When Paul wrote about these people being “baptized into Moses,” he’s not suggesting that Moses held a big baptismal service before crossing the Red Sea. He’s using the Greek word, baptizo, in the sense of “identification.” So, to put it another way, all the people who crossed the Red Sea were following Moses and had been identified with him. By faith, Hebrews tells us, Israel crossed the Red Sea. But we know the people themselves had no faith; they wanted to go back to Egypt; they were fearful. It was Moses who had all the faith and the people essentially rode his coat tails to safety. It was Moses who did all the work for the people.

They not only followed Moses, but they had all the spiritual advantages Moses had. God cared for and looked after all of Israel in the desert. He fed them. He protected them. He led them. God never left his people. Yet, as Paul wrote, He wasn’t pleased with them.

These five verses are important because they show us how sinful people really are. These Hebrews had been set free from the bondage to the Egyptians; they were given liberty they never earned and what did they do with it? Paul hints at their sins as a way to admonish the Corinthians for being the same way –

Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:7 – 10 NIV)

The people of Israel had all the freedom that the Christian has – and they freely participated in the blessings of God. Think about all the people who come to church, sing the hymns, and enjoy the presence of God. Not all of them are true believers. Some are not. Just like Israel.

So to the people in the Corinthian church, enjoying their new-found freedom in Christ and enjoying the riches of God’s blessings, Paul issued a stern warning that we would do well to pay attention to –

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:11, 12 NIV)

In other words, you may be neck deep in sin, yet still going to church and still enjoying God’s blessings with no punishment in sight. Hence the admonition: If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall. Just because the hammer hasn’t fallen doesn’t mean God hasn’t noticed and it doesn’t mean He’s turned a blind eye to your sins.

Paul’s overriding purpose in these verses is to demonstrate that freely participating in the things of God, including enjoying the freedom we have in Christ, comes with a moral responsibility to live responsible, self-disciplined lives. Whether in the Old Testament or New, moral behavior was an absolute requirement for the observant believer.

The Message of the Cross

The essence of preaching, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Paul had spent considerable time condemning a “partisan spirit” that existed within the Corinthian church in the preceding group of verses.  This “partisan spirit” had caused some divisions in the church as members of the different parties claimed loyalty to different leaders within the church.  Some followed Peter, others Apollos , and still others were fiercely loyal to Paul.  On this, the great apostle taught that there was no place for this kind of false loyalty, that the Cross of Jesus Christ made unity the normal state in the Church.  Regardless of who what preaching, they were preaching the same message:  the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this group of verses, Paul contrasts that which is foolishness to the world (the preaching of the Cross) to what is foolishness to God (the philosophies of man).

1.  Foolishness of Unbelievers:  Preaching, 1:18-23

These verses flow naturally from what Paul mentioned in verse 17:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Verse 18 may be summarized like this:  The preaching of the Cross, or the Gospel message, has a two-fold consequence.  To those who are lost it is foolishness.  To those who know God, it is the power of God.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

To the unsaved–those who are even now in the process of dying–the “message of the cross is foolishness.”  The Greek word translated “foolishness” is moria, and can refer to anything that is irrational, stupid or worthless.  For the Gentiles of Paul’s day, surely those words described the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  To be hung up on a tree or cross and left to die was the worst punishment reserved for the vilest of criminals.  So Paul’s message of the cross was absolute nonsense to the educated Greeks.

On the other hand, that precise message becomes the “power,” dynamis, of God to those who are “being saved.”  Before we discuss this “dynamis,” let’s consider the phrase “being saved.”  This phrase helps us understand the nature of salvation because there is dimensionality to our salvation that looks to the past, the present and to the future.

Past:    “For in this hope we were saved”  Romans 8:24; “By grace you have been saved”  Ephesians 2:5, 8; “By his mercy he saved us”  Titus 3:5

Present:  “Through which [the Gospel] you are being saved”  1 Corinthians 15:2; “Those who are being saved”  2 Corinthians 2:15

Future:      “How much more shall we be saved?”  Romans 5:9; “Thus all Israel shall be saved”  Romans 11:26

Believers are saved during their life on earth in principle and as they live they continually grow in this salvation with the realization that it will be consummated completely when they leave this earth and enter into the presence of God.

To people like that, Paul writes, this message of the Cross is God’s power, it is not simply a nice story or good advice, it is God’s own Word which fills them with His power.  To illustrate that God’s wisdom, the message of the Cross, is a power that operates in human affairs, Paul gives four illustrations drawn from both history and contemporary life.

(A)  The first illustration is taken from Isaiah 29:24, which Paul quotes in verse 19:

For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Understanding the context of this verse is key to understanding Paul’s point.  Isaiah is referring to a political alliance Israel had made with Egypt which was considered at the time it was entered into a masterpiece of  human wisdom and diplomacy.  However, in God’s sight, what His people had done was utterly foolish for it resulted in Judah being reduced to poverty and a state of helplessness.  Israel sought to deliverance from their enemies, not from God as they should have, but from their own wisdom.  Godet makes the point that it was God’s responsibility to deliver His people, not the responsibility of able politicians.

Gordon Fee observes:

Yet it is the folly of our human machinations that we think we can outwit God, or that lets us think that ought to be as smart as we are.

(B)  The second illustration is verse 20, and, like the first, is taken from Hebrew history, and also taken from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, where Paul lifts the prophet’s questions and makes them his own.

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

The general reference in Isaiah’s questions is to the Assyrian conquerers (Isa. 36, 37) who came and besieged Jerusalem with great military power and overwhelmed the Jews, carrying off the spoils of conquest.   The “wise” was probably the Greek sophist, who could argue any topic and arrogant sincerity.  The “scholar” would refer to the stubborn and equally arrogant interpreter of Jewish law and the “philosopher of this age” comes from the Greek meaning to argue or dispute.  Paul probably has in mind both the self-confident Greek philosopher and the self-satisfied Jew, both of whom relied on human wisdom and tradition for salvation (Metz).

Paul summarizes his questions with a fourth question that serves to show that God is not indifferent to the proud pretensions of man.  As man displays his wisdom, God makes it all look foolish in two ways:  (1) by exhibiting its intrinsic worthlessness and corrupt results, and (2) by the power of the Cross set in opposition to it and triumphing over it (Lightfoot).

(C)  The third illustration of the failure of human wisdom is Paul’s sweeping indictment of all mankind in verse 21:

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

Paul is saying that for all his vaunted wisdom and philosophies, man has not been able to know God.  Of course, Paul does indicate that man can know about God in the world around him, Romans 1:18-20, but knowing about God is not knowing God.  Man is not incapable of knowing God personally using only his own wisdom.

Man not having recognized God…by the healthy use of his understanding, God manifests Himself to him in another revelation which has the appearance of folly (Godet).

Because man’s intelligence and wisdom cannot create a personal relationship with God, God resolved to show man how foolish he is to even attempt it by means of preaching.  In other words, how foolish is a person to spend years and years and countless dollars attempting to grasp the infinite Almighty when all he had to do was sit and listen to the Word of God being preached?

(D)  Verses 22-23 contrasts the attitude of Jews and Greeks during Paul’s time to God’s wisdom and power.  The Jews, said Paul, demanded signs and evidences in ceremonial observances according the dictates of the law.  The Greeks wanted rational explanations and sought to understand the workings of God through scientific methods of observations and deductions.  Both the Jews and the Greeks, though their methods differing, were in fact approaching God in exactly the same way; insisting that God reveal Himself to them according to their ideas.

Paul briefly mentions four qualities of God in these two verses:

  • the Power of God, which is Christ.  In this connection, Paul is referring to Christ’s work of re-creation.  Christ is God’s power in the redemption of mankind.  God’s power was revealed in His resurrection, which is the greatest miracle of all times.  This would more than satisfy the Jewish need for a sign.
  • the Wisdom of God.  Christ is God’s answer to the Greek need for wisdom, who consider the message of the Cross foolishness.
  • the Foolishness of God…is wiser than men.  In the eyes of man, some of God’s acts seem foolish, yet those so-called foolish acts are infinitely wiser than the wisdom of any man.
  • the Weakness of God…is stronger than men.  God appears to do things that are simple and foolish and weak in the opinion of man to show His wisdom and strength in the work of salvation.  The classic example of this is how God dealt with Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  In answer to Paul’s repeated request to have the thorn removed, which He believed God capable of doing, the Lord said, “My grace is adequate for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The essence of the Gospel, writes Metz, is the proclamation of a message from God, not the accommodation of God to man’s preconceived ideas.  What is the message of God?

Christ crucified

“Crucified” is written as a present participle, which is significant according to Morris:

Not only was Christ once crucified, but He continues in the character of the crucified one.  The crucifixion is permanent in its efficacy and its effects.

And that foolish notion was a stumbling block to Jews and craziness to Greeks.

2.  God’s way of saving:  Preaching, 1:26-31

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Paul is now finished with contrasting God’s strength and man’s weakness and now he wants to draw attention to themselves and the circumstances under which God has called his people.  None of them were highly educated, politically powerful or wealthy.

Instead, God for His own purposes, has chosen people who seem to be foolish and weak and  helpless so that He might shame the wise and the powerful.  Why?  Because the things that impress human beings–intelligence, wealth, beauty, influence–are all fleeting and subjective.  Paul continues this thought in verse 28, where he mentions the “low born” ones and the ones who were “despised,” or frowned upon.  This would have been a powerful statement to the Corinthians since there were so many slaves in that city and so many of the “lower class” in the very large congregation there.  God has chosen people like that, says Paul, to show those who seem to be important that they are in reality incapable of accomplishing anything in regards to their salvation because their wisdom, power and influence are weak.

The very composition of the congregation at Corinth, a mixture of all classes of people, showed that nobody could glory in God’s presence; in other words, because rich and poor, smart and dull, slave and free, Jew and Greek, all worshiped together and shared a common salvation experience, nobody could say it was their standing in the community or any of their own merits that secured their salvation.  Salvation is all about Christ, not about us.  Each one of us, as we come to Christ in faith, exchange our filthy righteousness for His; we are placed in Christ and therefore we take on His likeness.

This brings us back to “the message of the Cross.”  The Object of all preaching must be Jesus Christ, not the preachers grand ideas and philosophies.  That is why no preacher has a right to “boast” in his education or accomplishments or abilities.  The problem that plagued the Corinthian church was the constant exaltation of the preacher; Peter, Paul or whomever.  The more the people looked to the man, the more divisions appeared in the church.  It’s a terrible sin to put the name of a man alongside that of his Lord.  Vine wrote:

The knowledge that we are indebted to the Lord for every good thing should keep us from glorying in self or anyone else.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, born in 1844 despised the Christian faith.  He viewed Jesus as a weakling who died a failure.  He hated Jesus and all who followed Him.  As far as Nietzsche was concerned, God was dead and Jesus was a fool.  It’s hard to imagine he was born into a family of preachers!

Modern progressives hold very similar views.  They say Christ’s teachings, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Scripture in general are out of date and irrelevant.  In fact, they believe the Bible and the Church are dangerous to man’s own pursuits and strip man of his freedoms.

And yet, God chooses the foolish and the weak things of the world to shame people like Nietzsche and the secularists, the humanists, and the agnostics.  In truth, God hates their arrogance and their arbitrary, man-made standards and He brings those belief systems to ruin as time goes on.  Those who reject God and His ways don’t face anything but moral bankruptcy and a host of physical and emotional ills.  All the while God chooses what they would view as the weak and lowly people to advance His kingdom on earth.  God honors the work of those who are so weak they must depend on Him totally and without reservation.   And He delights in people whose lives are wholly dedicated to Him and who set their lives in harmony with God will and His Word and who glory in Jesus Christ, their Lord.

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