1 Corinthians 1
Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church around 54 AD, about 5 years after he founded the Corinthian church, in reply to a report brought to him by ‘Chloe’s people’ (1:11) and a letter (7:1) asking him a number of questions relating to ethics and the church.
Despite all their divisions, immorality and abuse of spiritual gifts, Paul always gives thanks to God for them ‘because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:4-8). What’s interesting here is that Paul thanks God for the very things that cause them most trouble, spiritual gifts, and says these Christians characterised by the ‘sins of the flesh’ will be blameless on the day of judgment. There’s hope for us!
Verses 10-11 give the reason why Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers.’
For Paul church unity was vital. Four times in verse 10 he appealed for unity: ‘all of you agree’, let ‘there be no divisions among you’, ‘be united in the same mind’, ‘and the same judgment’. This applied to gospel issues – theology and ethics – not secondary matters (Romans 14).
The Corinthians were divided over a number of issues: leadership; sex, marriage and divorce; lawsuits; eating food offered to idols; the role of women in the church; tongues and prophecy; and the resurrection. Chapters 1-4 focus on leadership and the place of rhetoric in preaching.
The Corinthians were championing different leaders/preachers. ‘What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ”’ (1:12). To which Paul responded: ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’ (1:13). The problem was this: Paul preached and planted the church. Some of the Corinthians thought Paul a poor preacher, lacking rhetorical skills: ‘For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”’ (2 Corinthians 10:10).
Apollos, who came after Paul (Acts 19:1), was an excellent orator. Apollos ‘was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures’, ‘fervent in spirit’ and spoke boldly (Acts 18:24-26 ESV). He conformed to the rhetorical model of speaking the Corinthians were used to. Top orators were like pop stars and the Corinthians paid good money to hear them speak.
Based on these contrasting preaching styles some said, ‘I follow Paul’, while others said, ‘I follow Apollos’ (or the ‘spiritual’, ‘I follow Christ’). Paul would have none of it, and downplayed the role of the preacher (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). It was God who gave the growth (3:6-7).
Paul deliberately avoided the rhetorical preaching style: ‘For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power’ (1:17). He wanted to persuade the Corinthians to believe in Christ by the content of the gospel, the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18), not through the persuasive power of the human voice (2:1-5). Such ‘converts’ would not last once the power of the speech wore off.
It was no easy thing for Jews and Greeks to believe the gospel. The Jews demanded signs before they would believe (1:22). To preach Christ crucified was a stumbling block because someone who died on a cross was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), so could not be the Messiah. The irony is that Jesus was cursed by God, not for his sins but for ours! The Greeks sought wisdom, spoken with eloquence (1:17, 22). To them the cross was foolishness. How then could Jews and Greeks be saved?
Paul answered: ‘… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’ (1:23-25).
The cross is mighty to save! Only Christ crucified can save sinners.