First Corinthians Inside Out

When I was writing “The Priesthood Of All Believers” (located on the Forever Stone site) I discovered a different way to look at First Corinthians. That was about a year ago. I’ve prayed about this and I believe The Lord wants me to do this study. As I frequently remind my readers, I am not a trained theological seminarian. I’m merely a lay person who wants to obey his Lord. 

Also, for a variety of technical reasons, not the least of which is the copyright laws, I have chosen to use the World English Bible for most Biblical quotes. The link to that resource is Bible Gateway.

Before you read any further, please pray about this. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you find His Truth as you read this. For some of you these comments on First Corinthians will be nothing new. Others will find it new and refreshing. Still others will have much difficulty with parts of it. I do pray that you will be blessed as you read this.

Also, don’t just read this. Open your Bible. Study what’s written. This is just one perspective. It will not be verse by verse. There’s plenty of good studies that do it that way. This will look at the letter from a specific perspective.

Probably best if you read the whole letter first. It’s not very long. And it’s laid out in a systematic plan. That makes it easy to comprehend. This study is going to jump around and it might be useful to have some idea of what St. Paul said—and the order in which he presented his argument. I say “probably best”…well, I’ve spent a bit of time over several months meditating on this letter and, most certainly, St. Paul squeezed a lot into this letter. I can only begin to scratch the surface. Plus, I believe that every one of Paul’s letters was planned with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Even the entire Bible!)

Introduction:

The Corinthians were in many ways very much like modern (Western) Christians. Unlike the situation in Philippi when Paul wrote to them, the Corinthians, at the time of this letter, were not suffering from Roman persecution. Their problems were the problems of a complacent church.

This letter sounds very much like St. Paul is both heartbroken and angry. In addition, God has assigned an itinerary to St. Paul; who is torn between obedience to his assignment and his desire to visit Corinth to get them sorted. Of course, he will obey God. But the situation in Corinth makes it so much more difficult.

The Asbury Bible Commentary tells us that, at the time of this letter, Corinth was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was a ‘melting pot’ in that people from all over the Empire lived in Corinth. The Asbury commentary also states that the letter was probably written during the 54-57 AD time period. The commentary also notes that the Corinthian Church at this time has much in common with the Church of the late 20th & early 21st Centuries.

I’ve titled this as “Inside Out” because my study begins in the middle of the letter and works its way out to the beginning and then to the end. Here’s a quick survey of the letter: First, St. Paul says “Hello” to the Corinthians. Then he jumps right into the reason for the letter. He has heard from a number of reliable sources that the Corinthians have a huge problem: there are all sorts of divisions in this congregation. Then, beginning with chapter 5, he deals with a number of sins and confusions that the church has asked him about. From one viewpoint this section ends with chapter 15. Chapter 16 is the closing of the letter.

There are, I think, a major and a minor theme running through this letter. The major theme is Love. Specifically, obedience to the last commandment Christ gave His disciples. The minor theme is how to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Preface:

Before jumping into the heart of this study let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting verses. If you have read much of my writing, you will know that I dislike taking verses out of context. However, some verses, like John 3:16, do stand on their own. Other verses can be rather odd…or difficult. For example:

Chapter 1: 26 For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; 27 but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that don’t exist, that he might bring to nothing the things that exist, 29 that no flesh should boast before God.

To some reading this the meaning is quite clear. Others may be somewhat confused. Even though verse 29 tells us ‘why’ God chose the weak and foolish we may still not really understand. Look carefully at verse 27. It is the “weak” and the “foolish” from the viewpoint of the World, the culture or civilization that prefers idols to God. The culture that prefers wealth and status despises the things of God. There is an ongoing war, a fight to the utter destruction, between Good and Evil. It began in Genesis chapter 3.

Chapter 2: 14 Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual discerns all things, and he himself is judged by no one. 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?” (Isaiah 40:13) But we have Christ’s mind.

Or, as the KJV says famously, “…but we have the mind of Christ.” This used to bother me. From the context it sounded like Christians shared Christ’s mind and therefore understood the workings of God. Christians, no more than others, are surprised when certain things happen. But that’s not what St. Paul is saying. Let me share two experts with you:

John Calvin tells us (143) He says, then, that the servants of the Lord are taught by the paramount authority of the Spirit, what is farthest removed from the judgment of the flesh, that they may speak fearlessly as from the mouth of the Lord, — which gift flows out afterwards by degrees to the whole Church.”

To my understanding, Calvin is describing what St. Paul, in chapter 12, calls “the word of wisdom” and “the word of knowledge”; perhaps even “prophecy”. It could even be every one of the “Gifts of the Spirit”.

Matthew Henry carefully tiptoes past this by saying that the Apostles were empowered to reveal the Mind of Christ to us, basically, through what is now called Holy Scripture. However, he does conclude that Observe, It is the great privilege of Christians that they have the mind of Christ revealed to them by his Spirit.”

We do not know the Mind of Christ that we may instruct Him. Instead, the Holy Spirit shares some of His thoughts with us. The interpretation of this concept is something theologians love to debate. I’d advise you to let the Holy Spirit reveal to you that which He wants you to know. Also, do you begin to see how St. Paul thinks?

Chapter 3:16 Don’t you know that you are a temple of God, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, which you are.

Taken out of context, this does sound like a prohibition against suicide. That raises a very difficult question: does it apply to everyone, or just to those who have accepted Christ as Savior? When examined within it’s context the meaning becomes clear. Suicide is not at all what St. Paul is discussing.

The entire congregation is being addressed, so “you” means everyone in the congregation, both individually and collectively. Therefore, we have a picture of the “Temple” as the entire congregation. The warning is for the “you” (both singular and plural) who would destroy the congregation, which is the Temple.

Elsewhere, Scripture informs us that Christ lives within each Christian and thus, our personal bodies are also “Temples”. So I take it, also, to mean that if I am saved and then I renounce my faith, pursuing evil, I have destroyed the Temple that was my body, even though I still appear alive to other humans. See Chapter 6:19-20.

Chapter 6: 12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are expedient. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be brought under the power of anything.

Chapter 6 verse 12 is, I think, is one way to sum up “The Christian Life”.

Chapter 10: 13 No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

The Christian Life is sometimes seen as a life of discipline. And it can be lived that way. However, it is my experience that Satan/Temptation will arrive from an unexpected source. When that happens my experience is that I cannot rely on discipline. I must rely on the practice of looking to Christ, seeking Him. For in my own strength I cannot resist, but in trusting Him, in keeping my focus on Him, I will see the way out of the temptation.

It is true that all things are lawful but not expedient. I will not allow anything to enslave me. Still, there’s that time the doctor prescribed a pain-killer which put me in instant addiction. Fortunately, he would not prescribe any more. And I had enough sense to accept my situation. Discipline enables me to stay out of bars where I might find a tempting lady. The Lord provides me with the knowledge of how much it would hurt my wife (and Him) should I think about it. The Lord does provide an escape. The more time I spend with Him the easier it is to find the escape when He provides it.

Chapter 11: 16 But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither do God’s assemblies.

Well, I certainly don’t want to appear to be contentious! One of the first times I read chapter 11 I wondered about Sampson. The Nazirite did not cut his hair.

Here’s what Matthew Henry says about this: 

VII. He sums up all by referring those who were contentious to the usages and customs of the churches, Rom. 11:16. Custom is in a great measure the rule of decency. And the common practice of the churches is what would have them govern themselves by. He does not silence the contentious by mere authority, but lets them know that they would appear to the world as very odd and singular in their humour if they would quarrel for a custom to which all the churches of Christ were at that time utter strangers, or against a custom in which they all concurred, and that upon the ground of natural decency. It was the common usage of the churches for women to appear in public assemblies, and join in public worship, veiled; and it was manifestly decent that they should do so. Those must be very contentious indeed who would quarrel with this, or lay it aside.

To understand a verse one must understand the context. And this is probably one of the best examples of how that works. The context here is the disruptive contentious partisan one-upmanship that has spread through the congregation. So this singular verse is a summary of the contentious bickering that must be stopped. Apparently some of the bickering concerns the issues Paul addresses in verses 1-15. So Paul sets down a set of rules that are the common cultural norm. I don’t think he is making the claim that hats and hair styles are sinful. I think St. Paul is totally exasperated with this congregation. He has already told them (Chapter 6:12 & 10:23) that nothing is forbidden but everything is not useful. He’s also told them he’s going to feed them “milk”. There are so many more issues that need true spiritual understanding. So, I think, he just lays down these rules and then he uses this verse (11:16) to eliminate any argument.

The Main Discussion:

And that brings us to the topic of this study: the perspective I discovered. It appears to me that this letter is extremely well crafted. St. Paul deals with one topic for 15 chapters: The Corinthian congregation needs to learn how to live as Christian siblings. He’s had reports from a number of trustworthy sources and the Corinthians have sent him a letter requesting answers to their questions. Again, I ask you to read this prayerfully.

We start with Chapter 10 verses 31-33.

31 Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no occasion for stumbling, whether to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the assembly of God; 33 even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved.        [ World English Bible ]

Apparently, there was more than a little confusion in Corinth about the sorts of foods a person should eat. But I think this goes much deeper. It’s about every sort of action a person does. Skip back to verse 23:

All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are profitable. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things build up.

You’ve heard this before. Many preachers use this or a similar text to preach the following: St. Paul is using the concept of food that has been offered to idols as an illustration of how we should treat each other. His goal, his purpose, his singular focus is on the salvation of everyone he meets. He is asking the Corinthians, and also us, if we are doing that. Where is our focus? What motivates us in each action?

I confess that my daily thought patterns rarely include asking God for His opinion. I simply do as I think best. I worry about the motives of others. My decisions frequently result in the need to do things over or I fail to get something done within a reasonable time. I am doing better. Though not through my efforts: the Holy Spirit is helping me to focus properly. (It is when I sit down to write that I start praying. I certainly do not want to misrepresent The Lord in my writing. More about that in another place.)

But there’s something else here. “Give no occasion for stumbling…” This is not merely about things like what I eat or drink. It’s about even more than having a hidden sin. Elsewhere St. Paul condemns hidden sins, as does Jesus. That sort is thing is obvious. The problems stem from something deeper.

…I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit…” Our relationship with others should be of the sort that builds up, edifies, them. We need to make sure we do not condemn; instead we should gently point the way. And, at the same time, we should be open to the concept that we may be incorrect!

Frequently, this passage concerning eating meat dedicated to an idol is applied to drinking alcoholic beverages. And it may be that, in many circumstances, the principle applies, especially the consideration for the conscience of others. You will need to be the judge of the situation. However, it does not stop with alcohol.

Ponder this please. When he asks us to refrain from presenting situations to Jews, Greeks, or our Christian siblings that might cause them to stumble, he’s asking us to treat them with Love. While he uses the example of meat offered to idols, the reality is that of discussing baptism, transubstantiation, speaking in tongues or any other theological subject. The divisions in Corinth are a direct result of knowledge “puffing up” and pushing love aside.

Note that St. Paul has just reminded the Corinthians about the Exodus from Egypt and how these Israelites ate the same spiritual food, drank the same spiritual drink and still failed to please God. See Chapter 10:1-5. In the succeeding verses he continues this warning, discusses idolatry, food sacrificed to idols, then discusses cultural norms (such as hats and hair styles) before chastising them for the way they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s a rather odd set of instructions. There seems to be all sorts of problems in this congregation.

Beginning with chapter 5, St. Paul is discussing a variety of sins and theological confusions. These Corinthians appear to be a most sinful and confused congregation. What has brought all this Sin into this church? Well, let’s go back to the first four chapters. The reason for all this Sin is spelled out plainly. The division in the church has made them a house ‘divided against itself’.

The problem is not that one prefers the teaching of Apollos, another the teaching of Paul, and a third prefers the way Cephas teaches. The problem is the pride, the one-upmanship, the jealousy and strife that are ripping the congregation apart. Chapter 3:3

Now let’s consider the center of the letter: Chapter 12. Obviously, misunderstanding the Gifts of the Holy Spirit had played a huge part in the division within the Corinthian church. When addressing the various sins of this church, he began with the easiest to understand, the incest problem. Then proceeds to the more difficult questions. Second to last is the confusion concerning the Spiritual Gifts.

Paul has chastised the Corinthians, now he offers the solution. First, Paul demonstrates the variety of gifts the Holy Spirit bestows on Christians.

8 For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith, by the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit; 10 and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; to another different kinds of languages; and to another the interpretation of languages. 11 But the one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires.

Then Paul provides an explanation of how the Church actually operates: it is the Body of Christ. That there are many parts to a body is obvious. That the Church is a body is also obvious. I’ve looked it up: the Greek word is “soma” which refers to a physical body. He uses the same word in verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.

St. Paul is addressing the two big problems in Corinth with this one explanation. The church is the Body of Christ. It is made of many parts. By this he means that “a word of wisdom” or “a word of knowledge” or “healing” or “prophecy” or “tongues” or any other gift is simply a part of the whole. One is not ‘better’ than another. Each gift has its own purpose. We can easily understand this, having mulled it over for two millennia.

However, it seems that some of us miss the entire point of this letter. We read chapter 12 and use it to prove our viewpoint. Then we give chapter 13 to the wedding chapel. True, it does sound great at a wedding. It was read at my wedding. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we only read it at weddings. Rarely does anyone connect it to the concept of Spiritual Gifts. Rarely does anyone see the connection between Chapters 1-4 and this Hymn to Love.

That is precisely St. Paul’s point. He calls this the “better way”. Chapter 12:31 Better than what? Could St. Paul actually mean that we should really and truly “love each other”? In chapter 13 of the Gospel of John we read the story of the events that took place during the Last Supper meal. Among the things Jesus does is wash the feet of the Disciples. He also gives them this command:

31 …Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him. 32 If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately. 33 Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I say to you. 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Some denominations celebrate the Thursday before Good Friday and call it “Maundy Thursday”. The dictionary tells us that “maundy” derives from the Latin for “command”. The day is named for the command in verse 34. While St. Paul was not present at that event, he most certainly had been told about it.

This is the perspective that changed the way I understand this letter. When I understood that the Hymn To Love was not an aside but the core point of this letter, then the pattern fell into place.

The Corinthians have been so focused on the ‘self’, so filled with pride, that they are unable to love each other. With the Hymn To Love St. Paul is directing the congregation at Corinth to obey the last commandment given by Jesus to his disciples. By extension he is also directing us.

How do we show this love to each other? Chapter 14 opens the door on how we should treat each other. However, we need to understand something before we proceed. Turn back to Chapter 3: 1-2. St. Paul is defining the way in which he approaches these topics. These ‘baby’ Christians cannot simply be told something like When you speak in tongues do it in an orderly manner. Make sure there’s someone to interpret, otherwise you are only speaking to God. No, these people can’t understand that. There is all that pride and jealously blocking the path to orderly worship. If you think about it you’ll realize that you do not need St. Paul to tell you the difference between prophecy and tongues. It is obvious that speaking in tongues does nothing for those who hear it. However, if someone can interpret, that is a blessing to the congregation. Even those who do not practice speaking in tongues can see this. Same for true prophecy: if it has been confirmed, then it is a blessing to the congregation. So why did St. Paul find it necessary to explain this? Because the Corinthians were not ready for “solid food” but still needed “milk”.

There is another reason for this. Certainly the Holy Spirit saw the need for future generations to understand these things. I believe He guided Paul in writing this.

So, how do we show love to each other? Implicit in chapter 14 is the understanding that we should show respect to the opinion of others. As I read this letter it became clear that the Corinthians had a “wild and crazy time” in worship. Every denomination today would be shocked. Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a drunken party. Worse, they denounced each other. Everyone claimed they were right and the others were wrong. They carried their fight into the streets and into the courts. They permitted immoral behavior that shocked the Pagans.

Instead, St. Paul commands them to be orderly, to follow Holy Scripture and to show each other respect. Perhaps you are incorrect. Instead of denouncing you, I should treat you with Love and respect.

However, problems arise when we are so dedicated to our traditions that we cannot accept a better way to interpret Scripture. I am thinking about the multitude of denominations that proclaim/demand that their understanding is the only possible understanding. Please read the first four chapters 1 Corinthians again. Only this time substitute “Wycliffe” and “Hus” and “Luther” and “Calvin” and “Zwingli” and “The Pope” and also “The Patriarch” (Let’s not forget the schism between Rome and Constantinople.) for “Apollos” and “Paul” and “Cephas”.

We understand this from an insider’s viewpoint. But I ask you to consider how this multitude of denominations looks to Pagans. Is it not the same as when we take each other to court? Read carefully chapter 6: 1-11. Verse 1 essentially says, “How dare you!”. Then Paul explains the problems of airing our disagreements in the public arena.

We have an even more difficult problem: suppose a Baptist and a Lutheran (or Methodist and Presbyterian…or Anglican and Roman Catholic…) have a contractual disagreement. Are not both of them Brothers In Christ? Yet denominations shun each other and so our problems are displayed in public. The Christian witness of both parties is damaged.

The Pharisees had the same problem: So I must ask, “Which of your Traditions does your denomination consider so important that communion and fellowship with your Christian siblings is broken? (See note below.)

It all derives from chapter 1 verse 12. Now I mean this, that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” and, “I follow Christ.” And it should end with chapter 4 verse 14. I don’t write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even so, our pride keeps us divided. And thus there is one more Sin that St. Paul must confront.

The result of this division is the most insane heresy: chapter 15 verse 12: Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? This must have broken St. Paul’s heart.

I may write about Chapter 15 some day. It’s a beautiful passage. It does have some verses that need to be pondered. The premise is valid: if there is no resurrection, then we are lost in our sins.

Heresy, I must point out, comes from division. If we are in communion with each other, serving the Body of Christ by doing our part, acting from a heart of Love, heresy will not be a problem. Nor will any of the other issues the Corinthians have. That is St. Paul’s message. It is for both the Corinthians of 57 AD and for us in the 21st Century.

I’ve only touched on some of the issues this letter addresses. This study could be made from the perspective of Chapter 3 verse 16, for example. I think, however, it would conclude the same way. We, the Church of the 21st. Century, need to learn how to obey the Last Commandment of Jesus. We need to learn how to love each other. 

NOTE: If you want to consider the difference between “orthodox doctrine” and “tradition” please see Forever Stone. That is an ongoing (and rather challenging) look at the Bride of Christ. While I am certain that St. Paul completely denounced the quarreling and bickering, I am not certain how he would react to the idea of denominations. That is one of the concepts that Forever Stone is contemplating.

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