1 Corinthians: Living as Christians by Kevin Perrotta, Paperback
In 1 Corinthians , Paul urges us to a deeper conversion in Christ. Learn what it means to live a holy life as you study Paul's first letter to the...
|Series:||Six Weeks with the Bible Series|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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In 1 Corinthians , Paul urges us to a deeper conversion in Christ. Learn what it means to live a holy life as you study Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.
A Guided Discovery of the Bible
The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, we need guidance and the right tools for discovery. The Six Weeks with the Bible series of Bible discussion guides offers both in a concise six-week format. Whether focusing on a specific biblical book or exploring a theme that runs throughout the Bible, these practical guides in this series provide meaningful insights that explain Scripture while helping readers make connections to their own lives. Each guide
• is faithful to Church teaching and is guided by sound biblical scholarship
• presents the insights of Church fathers and saints
• includes questions for discussion and reflection
• delivers information in a reader-friendly format
• gives suggestions for prayer that help readers respond to God’s word
• appeals to beginners as well as to advanced students of the Bible
By reading Scripture, reflecting on its deeper meanings, and incorporating it into our daily life, we can grow not only in our understanding of God’s word, but also in our relationship with God.
About the Author
Kevin Perrotta is an award-winning Catholic journalist and a former editor of God’s Word Today . In addition to the Six Weeks with the Bible series, he is the author of Invitation to Scripture and Your One-Stop Guide to the Bible . Perrotta lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
1 CorinthiansLiving as Christians
By Kevin Perrotta
Loyola PressCopyright © 2004 Kevin Perrotta
All right reserved.
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through a small portion of the Bible, making a half dozen stops along the way, reading six portions of a letter of St. Paul to the Christian community at Corinth. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop.
This guide provides everything you need to explore the readings from 1 Corinthians in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what Paul’s words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you to both investigate the letter for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of 1 Corinthians. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with this New Testament letter. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present. By showing what this letter has meant to others, these sections will help you consider what it means for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud at the points where they appear. (But notice that the Guide in Week 1 is twice the usual length.)
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 76) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. The booklet contains the text of the portions of 1 Corinthians that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 80 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 76) or individuals (page 79).
A Call to Deeper Conversion
Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Paul’s declaration—perhaps more familiar in the old translation “Now we see through a glass, darkly”—marks out the beginning and end of a journey. The point of departure is wherever we are in life today. The destination is the kingdom of God. The journey takes us from our present fragmentary knowledge of God to a vision of God so awesome that we will need to be recreated through resurrection in order to experience it. We travel from shadows toward unimaginable Light.
On such an infinitely long trip, any distance covered is just a start. The deepest conversion is merely a first step, a getting on the road. As we move forward, the Light that is Love makes us aware of the shadows cast by our selfishness and sins. We begin to see where we need to change if we are to reach our goal.
These thoughts about the journey to God bring us to the Christians in Corinth. Some time around the year 50 they heard Paul preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they believed it (Acts 18:1–11). From what we can see, their conversion was sincere. They left behind some serious sins (6:9–11—Scripture citations in this book refer to 1 Corinthians except where noted). In fact, they were exhilarated by their new life in Christ. But their excitement did not magically transform their mentality or relationships. Despite the waves of enthusiasm that washed over them, the shoreline of their values and attitudes remained largely unchanged. Indeed, their enthusiasm for Christ soon began to combine with their pre-Christian outlook to yield questionable forms of spirituality.
We do not know how soon Paul noticed problems among his Corinthian converts. After evangelizing in Corinth for some time, he went off to pursue other missionary opportunities (Acts 18:18) but kept in touch with the Corinthians. He wrote them at least one letter that has been lost (5:9). Perhaps in the year 53, or 54, Paul received a letter from the Corinthians containing some questions (7:1) and heard news of them from some mutual acquaintances who had recently been in Corinth (1:11; 5:1; 11:18). He decided to send another letter to his new Christian friends to help them make progress in their journey toward God. Today we call it 1 Corinthians.
In the letter, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are being saved by the gospel they have embraced, so long as they hold on to it and do not believe it “in vain” (15:2). The Greek might also be translated “without due consideration,” “in a haphazard manner,” “thoughtlessly.” This is precisely the issue with the Corinthians. They have accepted Paul’s announcement of Jesus’ death and resurrection but have not thought through its implications for their lives.
Paul tries to help the Corinthians connect the dots between Jesus and themselves. He leads them back to the basics of their faith, focusing especially on Jesus’ final meal with his disciples (11:17–34), his death on a cross (1:17–2:5), and his resurrection (15:1–20). The way that God has saved them—through Jesus’ total self-giving—shows that any self-centered approach to life is profoundly misguided. If they will reflect on the roots of their life in Christ, they will better understand how they should live as his followers.
Of course, Paul had instructed the Corinthians in the central events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection when he first preached the gospel in Corinth. Much of the teaching in his letter, then, is reteaching. In a sense, he helps the Corinthians move forward on the road to God by taking them back to the point where they got on the road in the first place. Retracing one’s steps seems a paradoxical way of making progress. But Jesus, crucified and risen, is not only the entrance ramp to the road toward God. Jesus is the road to God. The journey to God is the process of coming to know Jesus the Way more deeply and becoming more like him. If the initial departure on the journey toward God is conversion, then progress involves one conversion after another, a returning over and over to Jesus. Every Christian’s life is a conversion story—and a story of reconversion.
The Corinthians faced the challenge of outgrowing their self-centeredness and reorienting their lives toward God and toward other people. This is the same challenge we Christians face today. Paul’s letter contains a great deal that can help us meet the challenge. But while, in some ways, the Corinthian Christians were very much like us, in other respects they were different from us, and their society was different from ours. Paul wrote a letter that addressed their particular situation. It is useful for us to get some idea of the distinctive features of the Corinthians’ situation in order to understand his message to them. The better we understand what Paul said to the Corinthians, the better we will grasp the message his letter holds for us.
The Corinth of Paul’s day was less than a century old—newer than any major city in North America today. We might compare first-century Corinth to nineteenth-century Chicago: a brash, booming city crowded with recently arrived seekers of success. Corinth was a place of dizzying social disparities. A tiny nouveau riche elite occupied the city’s socioeconomic summit. Below them, a small group of moderately wealthy people labored ambitiously up the slope. At the base, most of the population, including many slaves, did the hands-on work. The lower class ran the port (Corinth’s two harbors made it a major transportation hub), turned out the manufactured goods, and provided the civic and personal services that made life pleasant for the well-to-do. Like city dwellers throughout the Roman Empire, Corinthians in general were intensely status-conscious and unashamedly status-seeking.
Paul made converts up and down Corinth’s socioeconomic ladder. While there is no indication that anyone in the Christian community came from the very top of society, a few seem to have been major players in business and civic life. Archaeologists have turned up an inscription showing that one Corinthian Christian mentioned by Paul, Erastus, who served as the city treasurer (Romans 16:23), paid from his own funds for the paving of one of the city’s streets. But the Christian community was composed largely of poorer, uneducated people (1:26), reflecting the composition of society. Some of the Christians were slaves (7:21).
Belonging to very different social strata, the Christians in Corinth constituted an unusual group by the standards of the day. When the community gathered, aristocrats and slaves, who would not otherwise have related to each other socially, found themselves facing each other across a room and addressing each other as “brother” and “sister” in Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians that the testimony of Christ has been “strengthened,” or confirmed, among them (1:6). One way in which the gospel was “confirmed” among them was through its power to draw together people from widely different social levels and walks of life. In status-conscious Corinth, the simple existence of this remarkably varied community of people testified to the truth of the message about Christ.
Paul addresses his letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2). The Greek word translated “church” means public assembly. The church was a gathering of people, a community, not a building. There were no church buildings in Corinth, or anywhere else, nor would there be for a long time, given Christianity’s lack of legal recognition. Christians assembled where members had homes large enough to accommodate guests. The wealthier members who were in a position to play host to the community’s gatherings tended to function as the leaders of the community. One such leader whom Paul mentions is Stephanas (1:16; 16:15–17), probably a wealthy, educated man who had the wherewithal to offer hospitality to the community and do business on its behalf.
How many people belonged to the church in Corinth? While the Christians may sometimes have met in subgroupings in various homes, it seems that on occasion they assembled as an entire community in a single place (14:23). Thus, their number would not have been more than could be accommodated in a first-century Corinthian home. Mansions of the super-elite were immense. But lacking any members from the socioeconomic stratosphere, the largest houses available to the community for its meetings would have been those of moderately wealthy members. Archaeologists’ findings suggest that such houses could typically accommodate a gathering of some forty to fifty people. The church community, then, to which Paul wrote may have been smaller than all but the tiniest local Christian congregations today.
Despite their small number, the Christians in Corinth were far from being a harmonious bunch. In fact, stresses and strains in their relationships are the leading problem that Paul deals with in his letter. Among the areas of conflict:
- Prestige-seeking members, perhaps especially the upper-class men who host the community’s gatherings, have brought their competitive style of relating to each other into the Christian community. They are showing off their religious insights and sophisticated speaking abilities—all of which they regard as “wisdom.” This is causing the community to contract into rival groups, perhaps meeting in different homes. Paul addresses this situation in the first four chapters of his letter (we read some of this section in Weeks 1 and 2).
- Members are defrauding each other in business and property transactions and taking each other to court (6:1–11—Week 3).
- Those who consider themselves more spiritual and better theologically informed engage in disagreements with other members over issues concerning sex and spirituality (chapters 6–7—Week 3) as well as diet and dining (chapters 8–10).
- Socially advantaged members show no respect for the disadvantaged at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34—Week 4).
- Some members flaunt impressive spiritual gifts in order to raise their social standing, depreciating those with less showy gifts (chapters 12–14—Weeks 5–6).
We can only marvel that such a small group of people could discover so many sources of conflict—and that the group could contain so much conflict without bursting apart.
While there is much conflict among the Corinthian Christians, little if any of it concerns Christian teaching. Paul does correct a misunderstanding about the resurrection (15:12). But the Corinthians do not seem to be fighting with each other over this issue or over other doctrinal points. In general, the tensions among the Corinthians lie in the area of Christian living rather than Christian teaching. The Corinthians have brought their pre-Christian outlook into their Christian life. They have not relinquished their city’s self-promoting, status-seeking, competitive ethos.
Nor have the Corinthian Christians abandoned the concepts of spirituality that they learned from their Greek cultural environment. Some of them promote a spirituality that scorns the body as unspiritual. This leads some of them to a policy of sexual promiscuity and others to a policy of sexual repression—problems that Paul addresses in chapters 6 and 7. Others embrace an amoral spirituality that feels comfortable combining spiritual experience with jealousy, selfish ambition, dishonesty, litigiousness, sexual promiscuity, frank enjoyment of wealth without concern for the poor, and competitive displays of religiosity. Paul addresses these problems throughout most of his letter.
Paul does not deny that the Corinthians are very spiritual, and genuinely spiritual. In becoming Christians, they have received the Holy Spirit, who has brought them an array of gifts, all of which Paul welcomes (1:4–7). But the Corinthians are pouring these authentic experiences and actions of the Spirit into a self-centered mold. The Corinthians have launched themselves into a self-exalting spiritual high (4:8–13). They are treating their spiritual gifts as equipment for social climbing and gaining prestige (chapters 12–14). They are using their spiritual knowledge and eloquence to gain status and outshine rivals (chapters 1–4, 12–14). They disregard the spiritual needs of weaker brothers and sisters (chapters 8–10). They impose an exaggerated asceticism on other people (chapter 7).
They embarrass the poor (chapter 11).
Paul calls the Corinthians to leave behind false spiritualities and become truly spiritual. Real spirituality, he insists, is seen most clearly in Jesus’ death on the cross. At the cross, we see that real spirituality is, fundamentally, self-giving, because at the cross we see that God is self-giving. Jesus saved us from the power of sin and death by relinquishing his life for us. This kind of love, Paul says, is authentic spirituality in its purest form.
True spirituality, Paul insists, turns all gifts and graces toward the good of others rather than toward the aggrandizement of the self. The truly spiritual person accepts the experiences and workings of the Spirit as aids for advancing God’s mission in the world, not for his or her own personal advancement. True spirituality grasps the supremacy of love (chapter 13).
Obviously, the conflict of true and false notions of spirituality was not limited to first-century Greece. Today bookstores and Web sites are crowded with guides to spirituality. Churches and other organizations offer a wide range of spiritual programs. Amid this multitude of spiritualities, the inquirer must seek to distinguish what is genuine from what is false. Which spiritualities lead forward on the journey to the Light that is Love? As a guide to discernment, we could hardly do better than Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Several themes emerge as Paul leads the Corinthians to deeper conversion in area after area of their community life. One of Paul’s themes is that we ourselves and everything we have—our abilities, our knowledge, our bodies, our teachers, our spiritual and material resources—belong entirely to God (3:5–9, 21–23; 6:19–20; 12:4–11). All are gifts. All are to be used for God’s purposes. What room does this leave for boasting about ourselves, promoting ourselves, or making a selfish use of anything we have?
A second theme is that as followers of Christ we are brothers and sisters in him. Paul frequently refers to this relationship (1:1, 10, 11; 3:1; 4:6; 5:11; 7:24, 29; 10:1; 12:1; 14:6, 20; 15:1, 50; 16:12, 15, 20. In addition, Paul uses the Greek word for “brother,” “brothers,” and “sister” in places where the NRSV chooses an alternative translation: 6:6; 7:12; 8:11–13; 9:5; 14:26; 15:58). To treat each other as objects of rivalry or envy, as a means to enlarge our reputation, or as an audience before whom we may display our piety and spirituality—all of this contradicts our relationship in Christ. As brothers and sisters, we should work at understanding each other’s needs, at devoting our talents and resources to each other’s welfare. “Do not seek your own advantage,” Paul says simply, “but that of the other” (10:24). Do what is upbuilding for others rather than what is simply gratifying for yourself (10:23; 14:4).
A third theme is this: Remember Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead for us (2:2; 11:23–26). If we remember him, we will perceive how we are to live.
A fourth theme is our need to reevaluate ourselves. If anyone thinks he or she is wise, let that person become a fool so as to become truly wise, Paul counsels (see 3:18; 8:2). If we are to advance along the road to God, we must unlearn in order to relearn. The humility to acknowledge our immaturity remains a requirement at every stage of the journey, no matter how long we have been traveling.
These themes offer a great deal for our personal reflection as we ponder our next steps on our life’s journey to God. Look for these themes as you read Paul’s letter, and reflect on what they mean for you. Paul targets weaknesses and problems in the Corinthians’ lives. As we read his letter, we may ask ourselves how we are like them. In what ways do we view the world from a skewed perspective, as they did? To what degree do we share the values and attitudes that Paul urges them to change? Paul wrote to Christians in ancient Corinth; in what way do his words speak to each of us?
At a couple of points in his letter, Paul speaks sharply to the Corinthians about problems in their Christian community. For the most part, however, he patiently reasons with them. Paul regards some of the Corinthians’ problems as fairly serious, but he does not seem worried about his new Christian friends (1:8–9). The Holy Spirit is remarkably active among them. Apparently Paul is not surprised that the Spirit would bring to light areas in their lives that need to change. Paul seems to accept Christian life as a lengthy and messy process.
From our own experience, we know that Christian life continues to be a messy process. But the Spirit is as richly present among us today as he was in ancient Corinth. Like our Corinthian ancestors in faith, we can make progress by going back to the beginning, to Jesus crucified and risen. He will always be the beginning, the way, and the end of our journey into Light.
In this Six Weeks guide, we will focus on six portions of Paul’s letter that bear especially on the theme of deeper conversion to Christ. In the process, we will skip over sections where Paul speaks about his ministry as an apostle (chapter 4), about a problem of sexual immorality (chapter 5), about questions of marriage and singlehood (chapter 7), about eating meat that may have been offered to pagan gods before being offered for sale in the market (chapters 8–10), about head coverings when the community worships (11:2–16), about the Resurrection (chapter 15), and about his travel plans (chapter 16). You can enhance your appreciation of the excerpts we do read in this guide by reading Paul’s entire letter. If you do so, you may find it helpful to use a study Bible, with notes and other helpful materials (see page 80).
The Foolishness of God
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 From whom would you be especially surprised and pleased to receive a letter, e-mail, or phone call today?
2 Who is the most effective speaker, religious or not, you have ever heard?
Opening the Bible
Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1–2:5
Dear Corinthians . . .
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, 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:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
You’re So Gifted!
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
So How Come You’re Splitting Up into Factions?
10 Now 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 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.
Remember Jesus’ Death
18 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. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Remember Your Own Situation and My Preaching to You
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 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; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Questions for Careful Reading
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Does Paul express thanks for anything the Corinthians have done (1:4–9)? For whose actions does Paul express thanks?
2 Count up the times Paul mentions Jesus in the opening of his letter (1:1–9). How might Paul’s handling of the problem of division in 1:10–2:5 account for his numerous references to Jesus at the outset?
3 Paul reminds the Corinthians that God has “called” them (1:2). What has God called them to? What resources has God given them for this process?
4 In 1:13, why does Paul speak of himself rather than of Apollos or Peter (“Cephas”)?
5 “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1:20—emphasis added). The Greek form of the verb refers to a single act at a particular moment. What particular act might Paul be thinking of?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
1:1–17. Paul begins on a positive note, acknowledging the spiritual knowledge and understanding that God has given the Corinthians (1:4–7). But he quickly moves on to show them that they are not as wise as they think.
The Corinthians are dividing up into cliques aligned with different leaders: Paul, Cephas (that is, Peter; Cephas reflects the Aramaic form of his name), and Apollos (a prominent teacher: Acts 18:24–19:1). What is the Christ faction? Perhaps it is a default group consisting of those who wish their fellow factionalizing brethren would give it a rest (“Can’t we all just be Christians?”). There is no evidence in Paul’s letter that Peter and Apollos themselves are opposing Paul. Paul and Apollos are still cooperating with each other (16:12). But their followers are creating factions around them.
Paul’s language—“be in agreement . . . united in the same mind and the same purpose”—indicates that conflicting opinions are in play. But what are they? The factions do not seem to be based on theological disagreements. Paul gives no indication that some in the community are opposing his teaching while others remain faithful to it—no indication, for example, that while Paul preached Christ crucified, Peter or Apollos did not. Significantly, Paul does not rebuke the Peter or Apollos groups in particular. Indeed, the only ones he singles out for reproach are his own partisans (1:13).
The root problem, it seems, is not rival theologies but rivalry itself. It is not a matter of competing doctrines but of competing egos. One scholar remarks that it is the “I” in the “I belong to” statements that Paul argues against. To declare that “my teacher is greater than your teacher” is to rank not only the teachers but also you and me. In Corinth, party spirit seems to have developed almost in pure form, not based on particular beliefs but solely on particular persons’ ambitions.
How has this happened? First-century Greek and Roman society was even more inclined than our own to applaud naked self-promotion. Men, especially, competed quite openly for honor and influence. Business, politics, the military, law, medicine, philosophy, religious institutions—all were viewed as arenas where men might legitimately vie for prominence and power. The Christians in Corinth have brought this status-seeking outlook into their lives as Christians. They are playing out their struggle for prestige and influence within the Church, just as they were accustomed to doing in business, professional associations, and civic life. The tone of their ambitious jockeying for honor can be detected in Paul’s repeated references to “boasting” (1:29–31; 3:21; 4:7).
In the face of the Corinthians’ factionalism, Paul could merely have made an argument regarding effectiveness: “You’ll accomplish more if you work as a team.” Instead, he leads them to reflect on their life in Christ. He challenges them to consider the glaring contradiction between their outlook and that of Jesus. Paul’s goal is to bring them not only to outward harmony but to a deeper conversion to their Lord.
1:18–25. In the Corinthians’ status-obsessed culture, most people viewed education and eloquence largely as means to fame and fortune. People used philosophical ideas and polished oratory to advance their careers. This is exactly what the Corinthian Christians are doing. They are treating Christianity as a body of religious knowledge that gives them an opportunity to display their clever insight and oratorical skills. They are using the church as a forum for debating and for networking to advance their social standing. This worldly use of knowledge and communication skills is what Paul means by “eloquent wisdom” (1:17), “wisdom of the world” (1:20), “lofty words or wisdom” (2:1).
The total inadequacy of this worldly wisdom, Paul points out, has been demonstrated by the inability of its followers to perceive the way that God acted through Jesus. People who were locked into worldly wisdom could not see what God was doing through Jesus’ death. From a worldly point of view, where one focuses on achieving one’s own selfish goals, Jesus’ voluntary death appears to be stupid (1:23). People geared towards self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizement simply cannot comprehend a God who loves so much that he would humble himself to save even his enemies (Romans 5:8).
By contrast, the Jewish people did possess genuine wisdom in their Scriptures. Quite reasonably, they looked for “signs” that would help them determine where and how God was accomplishing the plan of salvation foreshadowed in Scripture. Nevertheless, many of them, too, failed to correctly interpret the signs that God gave. They, too, viewed Jesus from a worldly standpoint, from which Jesus’ humiliating and painful death hardly looked like a conquest of evil and oppression. They were not open to the wisdom by which God had acted through the death of Jesus.
Paul’s point is that God has pulled the rug out from under the worldly-wise outlook. Jesus’ offering of his life on the cross was the wisest and most powerful action in history. Through it, God has rescued the human race from the power of sin and the finality of death. The worldly, self-seeking mentality, which regards Jesus’ death as weak and foolish, is foolish. Indeed, it is an obstacle to knowing God and understanding how he is at work in the world.
1:26–31. The Corinthians are vying with each other to be perceived as wise and learned, to gain power and influence. It is a good thing God did not operate with your value system, Paul tells them. If God had adopted the Corinthians’ valuation of wealth, education, and noble birth, he would have passed by the Corinthians, for few of them were notable in these ways. God, however, values people regardless of their wealth, knowledge, or social standing. He wishes all people to hear and respond to the gospel of his Son. Since most people in the world are relatively poor, God’s universal invitation means that most of those he calls are poor. The Corinthians should be the first to appreciate God’s system of values, for it has given them a place in his kingdom. Why would they continue to embrace a system of values that would have excluded them from God’s kingdom?
If the Corinthians did not receive life in Christ through their wisdom, wealth, or noble birth, but through God’s gift, they have no basis for boasting (1:31), for proclaiming their own greatness, for placing themselves over other people, for advertising themselves as theologically insightful or holy.
2:1–5. The Corinthians who are turning the gospel into material for self-promotion should also remember how the gospel came to them. Paul did not deliver it with entertaining speeches and clever slogans. He did not arrive in Corinth looking to please audiences and elicit applause, to enlarge his reputation as a speaker and thinker, to get himself invited to dinner in the best homes. Basically, Paul announced what God has done through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul’s concern was not to promote himself as a spiritual guru but to meet God’s expectations for his ministry—a concern that had him in “fear” and “trembling.”
Paul does not deny that he used reasonable persuasion (2:4; consider Acts 17). But he did not let his rhetoric get in the way of the reality he was attempting to communicate (1:17). Above all, he did not let himself get in the way of his message. He wanted Jesus, not Paul, to be the focus of attention. He wanted his listeners’ new relationship with God to be founded on what God had done for them through Jesus’ saving death, not on the brilliance of the preacher (2:5).
“Clever thinking and clever speech?” Paul says to the Corinthians. “Those don’t bring anyone closer to God. The greatest cleverness in the world failed to recognize God’s most profound action in the world. By getting wrapped up in your religious arguments, you have gone astray, even if your arguments are correct. Self-promoting displays of religious thinking are not the way to know God. God has revealed himself in an act of total love, humility, and self-giving—the exact opposite of the self-promotion at work in your religious talk. The beginning of real wisdom is to fall silent and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. There is a wisdom you would never have thought of, no matter how wise you are. If you contemplate that wisdom, you will see your ego trips as the foolishness that they are, distracting you from the great thing that God has done. In Jesus’ self-giving you will find the inspiration to put aside your status seeking and to serve one another.”
Questions for Application
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Paul was called by God to be an apostle (1:1). What has God called you to be?
2 Wisdom is both a strong point and a weak point for the Corinthians. In what way may a person’s strong points also be their points of weakness, temptation, and vulnerability? How can recognizing this be helpful?
3 Paul celebrates the Corinthians’ gifts (1:7–8) before correcting their problems. How important is it to affirm people’s knowledge and abilities in the process of helping them to learn and grow?
4 How can a person detect his or her own worldly values? Is it easier to see others’ worldly values than your own? (See Matthew 7:1–5.)
5 What motivates people to compete with each other? What are the positive and negative aspects of competition? In what ways is competitiveness inappropriate in the Church?
6 Paul indicates that there should be a match between the content of the Christian message and the way it is communicated (1:17 and 2:2–5). How does the way you live and treat other people help them understand the Christian message? How might it be an obstacle to their understanding?
7 For personal reflection: Because he loved them, God chose the members of the church in Corinth even though in the view of society they were “foolish . . . weak . . . low and despised” (1:27–28). Thus he showed what he thinks of human standards of importance. Who do you choose as your friends? Who do you make an effort to get to know? What are your standards for who you will love?
Bible study will have an effect on our lives. It will result in growth, and that means change. . . . If we are not prepared to change in some way, we better not risk studying the Bible.
Rolf E. Aaseng, A Beginner’s Guide to Studying the Bible
Approach to Prayer
Use this approach—or create your own!
- Let one participant read 1 Corinthians 2:1–2 aloud. Pause for silent reflection. Then pray together this prayer attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. If you know the music by J. S. Bach to which it is often sung, sing it together.
O sacred head surrounded
by crown of piercing thorn,
O bleeding head so wounded,
reviled and put to scorn,
our sins have marred the glory
of thy most holy face,
yet angel hosts adore thee,
and tremble as they gaze.
I see thy strength and vigor
all fading in the strife,
and death with cruel rigor
bereaving thee of life.
O agony and dying!
O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying,
O turn thy face on me.
In this thy bitter passion,
Good shepherd, think of me,
with thy most sweet compassion,
unworthy though I be;
beneath thy cross abiding
forever would I rest,
in thy dear love confiding
and with thy presence blessed.
A Living Tradition
God’s Weakness Triumphs
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
St. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Greek-speaking bishop, lived in the period when the Roman persecutions of Christians had ceased and Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Looking back over the three centuries of persecution, Chrysostom marveled at the way that Christianity, despite repression and killings, had spread from one end of the empire to the other, and beyond.
In this growth, Chrysostom saw an illustration of Paul’s words about God’s seemingly weak and foolish way of doing things. Jesus’ death on the cross might be expected to repel people, Chrysostom pointed out in a homily on 1 Corinthians. When people ask us for a powerful and reasonable sign to confirm our announcement about Jesus, Chrysostom said to his parishioners, not only do we fail to give them what they seek, but we present them with the very opposite. For not only does the cross not seem to be the kind of sign sought by human reason, it is “the annihilation of a sign.” Not only is the cross not a display of power, it appears to be convincing evidence of weakness. Consequently, Chrysostom said, “When they who seek for signs and wisdom receive not what they ask for, but the opposite of what they desire—and then are persuaded, is not the power of the One who is preached shown to be marvelous? The cross seems to be an obstacle. Nevertheless, not only does it not repel people, it attracts them!”
Chrysostom also expressed amazement at the way that unschooled fishermen and other ordinary folks had succeeded in persuading a whole civilization to change its beliefs and customs. This was more than great philosophers had been able to accomplish. For example, Chrysostom observed, Plato worked hard to show that the soul is immortal, yet he did not persuade many hearers. But the seemingly weak and foolish cross of Christ, working not through religious professionals or skilled communicators but through unlearned men and women, had drawn the whole world to itself, persuading people to change their long-held beliefs about God and about the right way to live. “See how God’s foolishness is wiser than human beings and his weakness stronger. While ten thousands were attempting to extinguish the name of the crucified, the opposite came to pass!”
Excerpted from1 CorinthiansbyKevin Perrotta Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Perrotta. Excerpted by permission.
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