1 Corinthians - Introduction
It’s convenient to be able to read about the beginning of the church in Corinth in Acts 18:1-18. (Today is a good day to read it!) Paul led the local synagogue leader and many others to faith in Jesus and, in obedience to a vision from God (Acts 18:9-11), continued to speak about Christ in the city for a year and a half (50-52 A.D.). A few years later, however, after the winds of various teachings had blown through Corinth, Paul’s letter indicates that the young church struggled in some significant ways.
The city of Corinth lies just a few miles southwest of the Isthmus of Corinth, a 4-mile wide land bridge connecting the Peloponnesian peninsula to the northern mainland of Greece. (Check it out on googlemaps.) This economically strategic location made Corinth an inevitable place for development within the Roman Empire, and the exchange of goods was accompanied by the exchange of cultural and religious ideas. In particular, the Corinthian church seems to have been heavily influenced by Greek dualism, which understands the spiritual/intellectual and physical/material to be entirely distinct realms. Within this view, spiritual knowledge and expression are what matter, so that physical desire either becomes something to be denied because the physical is inherently evil (7:5) or something to be indulged because the physical is unimportant (e.g. 5:1-2).
Most of the issues that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians may be traced back to this false dualism:
- In chapters 1-4 & 12-14, Paul addresses spiritual pride, a sense among some of the Corinthians that they have “arrived” spiritually. Some are attaching themselves to certain personalities and to supposedly higher forms of wisdom and knowledge (1:12,20; 2:6; 3:21), while others are taking pride in charismatic spiritual gifts (13:1-2).
- In chapters 5-7, Paul addresses sexuality. Some are indulging in sexual immorality under the excuse that the body does not matter (5:1-2; 6:13-15), while others are denying good desires within marriage because they (falsely) see the physical realm as unspiritual (7:3-5).
- In chapters 8-10, Paul deals with the common practice of sacrificing food to Roman gods. Such sacrifices sought the blessing of the gods and the accompanying feasts were integral to familial, social, commercial, and political life. Paul makes it clear that it is unnecessary to avoid market food that has previously been sacrificed to idols (10:25-26), but he confronts those who are actually participating in pagan feasts out of a sense that they are spiritually immune to evil (10:19-22).
- In chapter 11, Paul transitions to matters of public worship. We saw above that 12-14 covers the subject of spiritual gifts in worship. The lack of concern for the physical seems to have led some to dismiss the uniqueness of gender (11:2-16) and to ignore physical need among those in the congregation (11:20-21).
Finally, in chapter 15, Paul masterfully presents the foundation of the Christian belief in the unity of body and soul, physical and spiritual: Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. He has alluded to this foundation elsewhere (e.g. 6:14), but in chapter 15 he provides the most comprehensive treatment of the resurrection and its implications in all of Scripture.
Gordon Fee's commentary, The First Epistle to the Corinthians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament series, is the main reference material for this devotional. You will see this work quoted some days. I do not agree with Fee on every point, but his commentary is one of the best on this letter.
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
• Greek dualism may be ancient, but it is alive and well in various forms throughout the world as well as in our church and culture. As you consider your own life and view of Christian mission, where do you see a tendency toward dualism? Is there a tendency to downplay or dismiss physical goodness, needs, desires, sins, etc. because you see the physical realm as unimportant or unspiritual?
1 Corinthians 1:1-17
It's difficult to imagine Paul packing more life-changing truth into the very beginning of his letter. In verse 2, he reminds the Corinthians that they have been "sanctified," or made holy, through the work of Christ and that they are "called to be holy." To be holy is to be set apart for God, to reflect God's character. But even if we understand the definition of holy, Paul's words could be confusing. Are believers already holy (i.e. "have been sanctified") or do we still need to become holy (i.e. "called to be holy")? Yes! Through union with Christ, we are already included in his holiness. This is now our true identity. Therefore, we are called to live in accord with our true identity, or, in other words, to become who we are in Christ.
This truth is especially relevant to the Corinthians, many of whom seem to have forgotten that holiness, displayed through love and purity, is central to the Christian call. Instead, the Corinthians are caught up in gifts of speaking and the acquisition of knowledge. Paul affirms the goodness of spiritual gifts and knowledge (1:4-7), but he is already subtly calling the Corinthians back to humble trust in Christ. Notice that Paul refers to Jesus in each of the first ten verses! Everything they have comes through fellowship with Christ. They are not special because of their connection with certain personalities (1:12) or on a higher plane than other believers, but rather they are "together with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:2).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
• Do you know, today, that you have already been made holy through your union with Christ, that this is now who you are? Take time to reflect on the immensity of this reality that God would make sinful people his holy ones at the cost of his Son’s life.
• How are you currently understanding growth in your faith? Is it primarily about becoming more like God, reflecting his character more and more in all that you do? Or where has “growth" become more about acquiring knowledge and displaying spiritual gifts, perhaps for others to see? Is your knowledge and gifting serving the purpose making you and others more like God, or have your knowledge and gifting taken on their own lives apart from God?
• Is your understanding of growth in Christ rooted in his grace? In other words, do you know that any growth in Christ occurs because you have already been included in his life?
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
If Christianity were a human philosophy, then growth as a Christian would primarily mean knowing more stuff about the philosophy and graduating to higher levels of knowledge. But Paul reminds us that “the world through its wisdom did not know [God] (1:21). Human wisdom fails in the most important thing! It fails to connect us to God because true religion is not about knowing a philosophy, but knowing a person — a crucified person.
In today’s passage, Paul points out the irony of God’s wisdom and strength, displayed through a Savior who clothed himself in human weakness even to the point of a humiliating death (1:25). The great irony is that Christ’s crucifixion, which human wisdom mocks, does what human wisdom could not do — his crucifixion enables us to know God. It leads to “our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1:30). In fact, his crucifixion overcomes the same deceitful pride of human wisdom that leads us away from God in the first place.
Paul points to the Corinthians themselves as evidence for God’s wisdom displayed through weakness (1:26-28). Even as Creator, Jesus embraced the humble position of a creature, and Paul is calling the Corinthians to embrace their humble position as creatures. When we embrace the power and wisdom of Jesus' crucifixion for us, we stop boasting in human wisdom and start boasting in the Lord (1:31).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Consider the power of death in our world. The death rate is 100%. All of it brought about because of sin. Consider the power of the cross, reversing the power of death and giving us "righteousness, holiness and redemption.” What does it look like to live a life rejoicing and boasting in the power of the cross? Where do you find yourself boasting in other things, especially various philosophies? Take time to rejoice in the unspeakable power of the cross in your life and in the lives of those around you.
1 Corinthians 2
The root of humanity’s rebellion against God is the desire for "superior wisdom." Think back to the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s fall came from the desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They stopped trusting the goodness of God and instead contended with God by seeking greater knowledge. They were already “like God” as his image in the world, but they were seeking to be “like God” in ways that our humanity cannot not bear.
So how can fallen humans like the Corinthians and us, who have inherited Adam and Eve’s pride in "superior wisdom," understand the true wisdom of Christ’s lowliness and crucifixion (2:2,7-8)? How could we ever understand that life comes through the free gift of God in Christ (2:12) rather than self-attained knowledge? Only through the Spirit of God working in us, who enables us to share in the mind of Christ (2:4-5,9-16). Merely human wisdom consists of words without power, but the wisdom of God has the power to give life (2:1-5).
So, it is not wrong to seek wisdom (2:6), but we must seek it in humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit. And how can we know if the wisdom we are receiving is the wisdom from God? Only if it leads us to a greater understanding of Jesus’ humility and crucifixion, making us more humble about ourselves and boastful about Christ in the process (1:31; 2:2).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
• Am I pursuing the knowledge and wisdom of Christ? In my heart, is Jesus becoming greater as I become less? Ask the Spirit to search your heart.
• The first five verses of this chapter are the heart and soul of Paul’s “philosophy of ministry.” It is not a complicated philosophy. Is the message and reality of "Christ crucified,” and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, at the center of my mission? In what am I trusting as I seek to make Christ known to others? Do I avoid talking about my own weakness and the power of the cross, or are they at the center of my message?
1 Corinthians 3
The Corinthians think that Christianity maturity means being connected to the right people (3:4,21a). It’s the cult of personality. How often do we feel more spiritually mature because we have read or listened to or follow a certain author or preacher, or because we are familiar with a certain theological idea? Paul’s definition of maturity could not be more different. For Paul, maturity is displayed through love and unity (3:21b-23), while immaturity is displayed through “jealousy and quarreling” (3:1-3). Unity does not pit one leader against another, but rather embraces the reality that all Christians belong to one another in Christ (3:22-23). Gordon Fee helpfully adds, “It is hardly possible in a day like ours that one will not have denominational, theological, or ideological preferences. The difficulty lies in allowing that it might really be true that “all things are ours,” including those whom we think God would do better to be without” (156).
In the midst of rebuking the church for their jealousy and quarreling, Paul also seems to turn his eye toward the leaders in the church. First, he reminds them that they are merely servants in God’s field. God uses their labor, but only God empowers the growth of the church and its members (3:5-9).
The metaphor then turns from field to building (3:9). Paul’s “point is that the quality of the superstructure must be appropriate to the foundation,” which is Jesus Christ (3:10-15; Fee, 140). In other words, only teaching grounded in the person and work of Jesus will produce true godliness (i.e. “gold, silver, and costly stones”), while other teaching will produce character (“i.e. wood, hay or straw”) that cannot stand the refining fire of God’s holiness. It is no accident that "gold, silver and costly stones” were important materials in the Old Testament temple, considering that Paul reminds the church that together they are now the temple — the dwelling place of God through the Spirit (3:16). Accordingly, he warns the leaders that their ministry is not a game (3:17). Finally, Paul circles back around to the wisdom/foolishness theme of chapters 1-2 and applies it specifically to church leadership (3:18-20).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- How do you know if you are growing in spiritual maturity? Is it because you are becoming more fluent in a certain theological framework or with certain authors or pastors? Of course it is good to grow in our understanding of theology and certain authors or pastors may be particularly helpful, but are they causing you to be more humble and helping you grow in true unity with believers who may not read the same books or listen to the same speakers?
- Is there any sense in which Christianity or ministry has become a game for you? Has it lost its weightiness or import? Do you know that, together with other believers, you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you (3:17)?
1 Corinthians 4
We were not made for sickness, hardship, violence, abuse, or any form of suffering. We were made to live in the abundant blessing of God. The richness of the Garden of Eden was just a starting point for what the whole world was to become (Genesis 1:28-30) and, through Christ, will become (Revelation 21-22). But we are not yet there. In a world marked by suffering, the only way to make Christ’s love and resurrection power known is to humbly enter into the suffering of others, following the way of the cross. Many of the Corinthian teachers and believers seem to be denying this need to suffer and instead are preaching a version of the “health and wealth gospel," which promises worldly strength, honor, esteem, and riches, this side of heaven.
Paul uses intense sarcasm to make his point (4:8-13). The false teachers in Corinth and their followers are like “kings," they are seen as being “wise" and “strong," they are “honored." They ought to know that something is very wrong with their lives and ministry, for this is not at all the earthly experience of their Savior! Therefore, Paul appeals to them as their spiritual “father” -- the one who introduced them to Jesus, pleading with them to repent of their self-satisfaction and self-protection, so that he will not have to be harsh in his words when he visits (4:14-21).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- In what ways is my life an attempt to avoid suffering and the suffering of others? How might Jesus all into me into the suffering of others, in all of its forms, in order to display and speak of the grace and resurrection power of Christ?
1 Corinthians 5
Here we see the height of the Corinthians' pride and the destructiveness of the lies being taught in their midst. Some are actually proud of the "freedom" exhibited when one of them has an affair with his step-mother (5:2a,6a). They believe that they have "arrived" spiritually and that sexual immorality actually demonstrates their supposedly mature knowledge of the unimportance of what is done in the body. They are, in their minds, beyond the body.
Paul's response may be difficult to understand. He is not saying that believers should separate themselves from unbelievers (5:9-10) and he is not saying that believers who are struggling with sin should be barred from fellowship with the church. Rather, professing Christians who are not even struggling with their sin and repenting, and are thereby trampling upon the grace of Christ, should not be treated as believers or allowed to take part in our Passover Lamb's body and blood at the Lord's table (5:11). Since there is no evidence of the transforming work of Christ in their lives, continuing to treat them as believers would give them a false assurance of salvation. Remember, there are only two kingdoms - the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness (e.g. Colossians 1:12-14). To “hand this man over to Satan” is to consider him outside of the kingdom of light, with the loving hope that such a wake-up call will bring him to repentance so that he may be saved (5:5).
In the midst of this severe warning, Paul gives believers a wonderful picture of our true identity in Christ. In the Old Testament, yeast or (more accurately) “leaven,” was a "portion of last week’s dough” that was allowed to ferment and was then added to new dough in order to give it lightness (Fee, 216). God used it as a tangible sign of impurity and, for this reason, Israel was forbidden from using leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the week following Passover. Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that, through Christ’s sacrifice, they have already been made a new, pure “batch of dough” (5:7 - “as you really are”). Similar to his call in 1:2, Paul calls the Corinthians to live according to their true identity by getting rid of the “leaven” in their midst (5:7a,8)! If they do not deal with blatant sin in their midst, it will end up hurting the entire community (5:6).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Are there any areas of your life that you consider to be outside of the authority or lordship of Christ?
- Do you have any friends who profess Christ but exhibit no desire to repent of blatant sin? What does love require? How can you humbly and lovingly speak into their lives? The first step is always to approach a friend individually in order to woo them back to the grace of Christ (Matthew 18:15-18).
- Do you know, today, that you have been made new through the shed blood of Jesus (5:7)? In light of reality that you have been made “new” by Christ, what “leaven” do you need to “get rid of”?
1 Corinthians 6:1-11
Paul refers in this passage to the Scriptural teaching that God’s people will somehow participate in his judgment of the world (see also Revelation 20:4). His reference is a future judgment in participation with God, not a present judgmental attitude toward unbelievers (5:12a). We have no idea what this future participation in judgment will look like, but Paul points out the irony of two believers taking a petty dispute to a secular court when the church will eventually help judge the world.* At the same time, he highlights the irony of the Corinthians’ claim to higher wisdom yet their inability to find someone “wise enough” to judge this dispute. Gordon Fee notes, “Paul is trying to help the Corinthians see their true condition over against their perceived one” (237).
The list in 6:9-10 ties together themes of sexual immorality and greed from 5:1 through 6:8. Just as he was concerned for the salvation of the offender in 5:1-5, he is concerned for the salvation of any Corinthians whose lives are characterized by sin rather than transformation. It is quite clear that Paul is not saying that true believers are without sin or that one earns God’s favor by doing good works. If he were saying either of these things, he would not continue to affirm their salvation in Christ, who “washed" away their sin, “sanctified" or set them apart as God’s holy ones, and “justified" or made them right with God (6:11). Rather, Paul is once again calling them to become who they are in Christ (1:2; 5:7)! Union with Christ is always accompanied by repentance and transformation.
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- You may not be taking other believers to court, but are there petty disputes or arguments with other believers that need to be resolved? Are you willing to bring in a wise, neutral party to help bring about reconciliation, if necessary?
- "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). The Spirit of God applies the work of Jesus to each believer. How does this reality speak to your heart today? in what ways are my thoughts, actions, and words not fitting of one who has been washed clean by Jesus?
* Note that this case is not one that involves issues of personal safety or abuse, which would necessitate the involvement of secular authorities, but rather seems to be one of dishonest business practices (6:7-8). Paul is not opposed to secular authorities (Romans 13:1-5), but is disappointed that the church cannot handle a trivial dispute between two of its own members.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Today’s passage may be the most powerful explanation in all of Scripture for the need to keep sex within the context of marriage. Paul begins by twice quoting a Corinthian saying, “Everything is permissible for me,” which seems to speak to the believer’s "freedom in Christ." It’s true that believers are free from legalistic obedience to Old Testament ceremonial laws and from man-made laws that Christians may heap on top of God’s law, but some Corinthians apparently think that they are literally free to do whatever they want in the body. Paul gently modifies their sayings and then quotes another saying, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, but God will destroy them both" (6:13a). The corresponding saying in relation to sexuality would logically read, “Sex for the body and the body for sex, but God will destroy them both.” But Paul shows the flaw in the Corinthians’ “wisdom." The body will not ultimately be destroyed, it will be resurrected (6:14)! Therefore, the body is for the Lord, not for sexual immorality (6:13b).
The bodily resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of his people are central to Christian morality, which encompasses every aspect of our beings. But this only tells us why things done in the body matter to God. Why is it crucial that sex stay within the context of marriage?
Paul takes the example of sexuality within the absolute lowest form of relational commitment — sex with a prostitute (i.e. zero commitment)* — in response to the actions of a member in the Corinthian church. He shows that even this lowest expression of sex creates a bond or seal of oneness, even though the relationship is utterly lacking in true oneness (6:15-16). True oneness with another human is permanent, just as our union with Christ is permanent. Only when a man and woman join their lives and their futures together, in the presence of God and his people, may it be said that there is true oneness. Otherwise, there is always a relatively easy out. And when the bond or seal of sex is broken, whether it is the bond of a one-night stand or a long-term sexual relationship, the tear will leave scars that are strangely unlike any other (6:18).
Sex always impacts our relationship with the Lord as well, for it is always either pleasing or displeasing to God, either a pure reflection of his permanent union with his people or a false imitation. Only sexual oneness within a life-long commitment, made before God and upheld by the power of God, can glorify God by reflecting his eternal love for his people. For any time a believer willingly has sex with another person, whether it is pure or impure, he or she brings God into that relationship (i.e. “shall I take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” 6:15,19-20).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Do I have the high, biblical view of sexuality that Paul presents here? Is the beauty of this view informing my life? Am I operating within this view?
- Where have I grown complacent in regard to sexual sin? Do I view any aspect of sexuality as somehow existing outside of my relationship with God?
* In modern times, we can probably say that digital or virtual sexuality is even less of a relational commitment.
1 Corinthians 7 (two days)
Paul covers a dizzying number of issues related to marriage within the scope of this one passage: sexuality within marriage (7:2-6), singleness and the question of whether or not to marry (7:7-9,25-28,32-40), marriage and divorce between Christians (7:10-11), and marriage and divorce between believer and unbeliever (7:12-24). Given that the church of Corinth is a young church filled with relatively new believers, the issues raised in this passage are not so surprising. For instance, it is not surprising that recent converts to Christianity would have already been married to unbelievers, questioning the way forward. The passage flows naturally out of Paul’s instruction in the previous passage on sexual morality (6:12-20) and several of the issues flow out of the same theological misunderstanding. Remember, when the physical realm is seen as unimportant or unspiritual, there are two ways one can go: indulgence, as we saw in previous passages (5:1-5; 6:12-20), or denial. While some of the Corinthians are going the way of indulgence, others are denying the goodness of sexuality by either abstaining from sex within marriage (7:3-5), seeking a way out of marriage/engagement (7:10-24), or feeling guilty for desiring marriage (7:28a,36-38).
On one hand, Paul affirms the goodness of Christian marriage and sexuality (7:3-6,10,12-13,28a,36). He lays to rest the idea that marriage and sex within marriage are somehow sinful or unspiritual.* Therefore, divorce is never an option for a person who loves the Lord (7:10-13**), except when an unbelieving spouse initiates the divorce (7:15).*** Rather, Paul calls believers to trust in God’s sovereign plan for their lives by being faithful in their current situation (7:17-24****), and assures them of God’s grace toward their children (7:14*****). For singles desiring marriage, the prospective spouse “must belong to the Lord” (7:39), for they are bringing Christ into the union (6:15-17).
On the other hand, Paul demonstrates the many advantages of singleness****** (7:28b,32-35), particularly for those who have the gift of contentment as singles (7:7,36-37). The advantages are clear. Marriage and family can add a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure to one’s life and have the potential to turn one’s concerns inward, whereas the single person typically has more freedom to serve the broader church and world. Even though Paul exalts the beauty of marriage in other places and gives plenty of freedom for marriage even among ministers of the gospel (9:5; Ephesians 5:22-33), singleness is clearly Paul’s preference for those who have the gift. He is careful not to elevate this preference to anything like a command (e.g. 7:35,38).
Married or single, Paul’s central concern is for believers to live in “undivided devotion to the Lord.” This is the heart behind Paul’s potentially confusing language in 7:29-31. “Taken literally, the five ‘as if not’ clauses become absurdities, not to mention contradictory to what Paul clearly said earlier about marriage (7:2-6) and what he will elsewhere say about sorrowing and rejoicing (Romans 12:15). But they are not to be taken literally; they are rhetoric, pure and simple.” Fee continues, "Just as in Christ the slave is a freedman and the free man is a slave (7:22-23) because one’s existence is determined by God, so now one does not so much live ‘detached’ from the world . . . as totally free from its control. Therefore, one lives in the world just as the rest — married, sorrowing, rejoicing, buying, making use of it — but none of these determines one’s life” (Fee, 340). Believers are not beyond the realities of the world as some of the Corinthians claimed, but in this age marked by Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his coming kingdom is never seen as being far away (7:29). Therefore, the characteristics of the coming kingdom ought to inform every aspect of how we live our lives in “both body and spirit” (7:34).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Paul reinforces the high view of sexuality within marriage presented in 6:12-20, but he also provides another perspective in this chapter — the advantages of singleness. Whether or not you may have the gift of singleness, do you share Paul’s high view of singleness? If you are currently single, what does it look like to live in "undivided devotion to the Lord”? While singleness may simplify life, distractions from service to the Lord still abound!
- If you are in a relationship/marriage, in what ways might the practical concerns of this world be impinging on your devotion to Christ? What does it look like for you to live in "undivided devotion to the Lord”? What changes of the heart need to happen? What practical changes to the rhythm of your day, week, and year need to be made?
* Note Paul’s equal concern for man and woman's marital fulfillment throughout the chapter.
** When Paul says, “not I, but the Lord”, he is closely paraphrasing the words of Jesus. When he says “I, not the Lord,” he is not paraphrasing the Lord, yet the church has always recognized that Paul’s letters are inspired Scripture. His teaching is still in line with the truths that Jesus gave us.
*** There are cases when one spouse claims to be a Christian but refuses to repent and live like a Christian. Such cases are often murky waters for the church to help navigate, but we can say that this passage does not require a believing spouse to remain with an abusive or unfaithful spouse whose actions demonstrate a denial of the marriage relationship.
**** Faithfulness in one’s current situation is a major them of the chapter, emphasized by these eight verses in the middle of the chapter. Within these verses, Paul touches on the issue of slavery. He speaks more directly against slavery elsewhere (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:10), but here he subtly undermines the institution. In 7:18-19, he provides circumcision/uncircumcision as an example of remaining in one’s current situation. If Paul were to treat slavery consistently with circumcision, he would simply call slaves to remain in their current state, but Paul is intentionally inconsistent here. He tells them to gain their freedom if they are able to do so (7:21). Given that Paul’s theme is remaining in one’s current state, this exception in the opposite direction is more powerful than it may at first seem.
***** The primary concern in 7:14 is the purity of the marriage relationship between believer and unbeliever, and the status of their children. Paul calls these children “holy,” or set apart for God. Throughout the Bible, the children of believers are included in God’s “covenant family.” In the Old Testament, this inclusion was signified through the circumcision of all males (representing the entire household), which set them apart from the world. Inclusion in the covenant family does not guarantee a child’s salvation, for children may grow up to defy their spiritual heritage and break covenant with God, yet this understanding of children within the covenant family recognizes God’s grace toward Christian families — particularly children’s participation in the teaching, signs and worship of God’s people. Recent converts who were married to unbelievers might question the validity of their marriage and therefore the inclusion of their children in the covenant family of God. Paul reassures them that they are included. He is not saying that the unbelieving spouses are saved, but that in terms of the marriage’s purity and the children’s covenant status, the unbelieving spouse has been “sanctified” through the Christian spouse. In other words, even if only one parent is a believer, the church is to treat the children as part of the covenant family.
****** Throughout 7:25-40, Paul may be speaking of betrothed couples, who were “bound” to each other by a covenant agreement but had not yet consummated the marriage (i.e. 7:27 literally reads "Are you bound to a woman?”), as he clearly is in 7:36 (Fee, 331). Regardless of his specific audience, his points about singleness and marriage remain the same.
1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 1 - Overview)
What the Corinthians may possess in knowledge, they lack in love. We have seen the Corinthians’ false version of "wisdom and knowledge" rooted in Greek dualism, which denies either the importance or goodness of things done in the body. This false “superior wisdom" has led them into pride and disunity, greed and hope in earthly comforts, sexual immorality, and the denial of the goodness of sexuality within marriage. Yet even true knowledge can lead to pride and the denial of love. In this long section of the letter dealing with a significant aspect of Corinthian culture, Paul finds some common ground with the Corinthians (8:4-6), but he shows how they have disconnected even their true knowledge from love.
As in chapter 7, Paul is again responding to an issue raised in a letter that he received from the church (see 7:1 and 8:1). Some of the Corinthians have framed the issue simply as "food sacrificed to idols," but Paul knows that the issue is bigger than the simple question of whether or not a Christian may eat food that has previously been sacrificed to the Roman gods. Such food was available at the market and commonly consumed in private settings (10:25,27), and Paul approves of eating this food since idols are “nothing,” but it was also consumed at cultic feasts (8:10 - “eating in an idol’s temple” and 10:19-20). These meals celebrated and sought the blessing of the Roman gods and were integral to social, commercial, and political life. To miss out on the meals also meant missing out on social opportunities and, at times, meant risking unemployment or government persecution.
Paul responds to the issue of “food sacrificed to idols” in two primary ways. First, he approaches the issue from the perspective of the “weak brother” who may have recently come out of a life of idolatry and who does not yet realize that the idols are “nothing at all” (8:4-13). At this point, Paul is playing along with the Corinthians’ framing of the issue and is not touching on the evil inherent in the cultic feasts. Yet even if he were to grant that the cultic feasts were neutral ground, love for the weaker brother or sister would keep a Christian from eating food sacrificed to idols in the presence of a fragile conscience. This would be true even at a private meal (10:27-28), not to mention encouraging a “weak brother" to go back to a pagan feast (8:10). Second, Paul directly attacks the Corinthians’ participation in cultic feasts. Even though the idols themselves are “nothing,” the worship of such idols is demonic (10:19-20).
We will look more closely at Paul’s two responses over the next two days.
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- More specific questions will be raised in the next two devotions on this passage. For now, consider the way that the Corinthians seem to have framed the question of “food sacrificed to idols” in an innocent manner. It seems that they were avoiding the issue of the cultic feasts by framing the issue simply as a “knowledge” issue (8:1). What are ways that we might reframe moral issues in order to avoid dealing with sin? Perhaps we reframe moral or justice issues as merely political issues? (Try to put this question on yourself instead of thinking of ways that others might do this). Perhaps we reframe moral issues as “tolerance” or “acceptance” issues? (Same suggestion.) Or maybe, like the Corinthians, we misuse true knowledge and make it an excuse to trample on the consciences of others?
1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 2 - emphasis on 8:1-9:27)
Is Christianity ultimately about rights or love? The answer is obvious, but the tension between what believers have the “right" to do and what love requires is probably present more often than we realize. For the Corinthians, their knowledge of the only true God (and of the non-existence of the Romans gods) has led them to demand their right to eat food sacrificed to non-existent gods. Today, we look a little more closely at Paul’s first response to the Corinthians’ demand.
Paul spends almost all of chapter 9 on an excursus of the subject of rights versus love, so that the chapter becomes one big analogy to the issue of how to handle food sacrificed to idols. It’s important to know that the Corinthians, in their fascination with gifted traveling speakers and personalities (see chapter 3), actually looked down on Paul and questioned his credibility because he did not demand patronage or fees for his teaching (9:3). Paul has no doubt that he has the right to earn a living from preaching the gospel, especially from believers who came to know Christ through his ministry (9:1-2,11-12a). He provides analogies to soldiers, to farmers, to shepherds (9:7), to the hard-working ox (with Scriptural backing — 9:8-10), and to Levites and priests (9:13) as support for this right. He also refers directly to the words of Jesus as support for this right (9:14; see Luke 10:7). But it’s not about rights (9:15-18)! For Paul, it’s about what will lead the most people into a relationship, or deeper relationship, with God. “In one sense his ‘pay’ is in fact to receive ‘no pay’ … In offering the ‘free’ gospel ‘free of charge’ his own ministry becomes a living paradigm of the gospel itself,” that “as many as possible” might be won to Christ (Fee, 420-421). He will give up his right to compensation, to marriage (9:5), to freedom from certain Old Testament laws (9:20), to continuation of certain Jewish customs (9:21), and even to food sacrificed to idols for the sake of the “weak,” depending on his environment (9:22 -- in referencing the “weak,” Paul is circling back around to the point in 8:9-13).
In the final paragraph of chapter 9, Paul begins to transition to his second response to the Corinthians’ demand for their right to eat food sacrificed to idols. Whereas his focus has been on giving up rights for the sake of others, his focus is now on his own growth in Christ (9:23b-27), hinting at the Corinthians' need to pursue their own growth. True believers are far from perfect, but they persevere in faithfulness and are called to exercise discipline and self-control, like an athlete, for the sake of glorifying God. But the Corinthians’ mishandling of knowledge has not only led them to offend the consciences of more fragile believers, it has also led them into spiritual laziness and self-indulgence through participation in pagan practices, as we will see more clearly tomorrow. Hear again Paul’s humbling response in 8:2-3: "Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Direct parallels to the worship of Roman gods are not common in our culture, but there are plenty of times when our “rights" as believers come in tension with love for other believers and with the progress of the gospel. The tension may come in form of the freedom or right to spend money in certain ways, to drink alcohol, or to attend certain events, and the answers are not always clear. Consider two questions. First, do I even have friends who might be considered “weaker” believers, who have recently come out of very un-Christian lifestyles? If so, am I using my “rights” in ways that might offend their tender consciences or am I careful to protect their growth in Christ?
- What is the goal of growing in knowledge for me — to simply know more or to love God more fully? Over the last few weeks, is growth in knowledge puffing me up or humbling me?
1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 3 - emphasis on 10:1-33)
The self-proclaimed stronger believers in Corinth are not only in danger of harming the “weak” believer, they are also endangering their own relationships with God. They may have a stronger grasp on the emptiness of Roman gods, but apparently they do not have much of a grasp on the demonic nature (10:20) of worshipping them. Eating food that has previously been sacrificed to an empty idol is fine (so long as you’re not offending someone’s conscience!), but actually participating in the worship of a false god is a different matter.
At the end of chapter 9 (9:23b-27), we saw Paul change the focus from concern for the “weak” believer to caring for one’s own soul. Paul provides several warnings from Israel’s experience (10:1-11) and, in doing so, shows the unity between Israel and the New Testament church. He makes it clear that Israel, too, was saved through Christ (10:4)! All that was done to save the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt — the Exodus through the Red Sea (10:1; Exodus 14;16), God’s presence and guidance through the pillar of fire and cloud (10:1; Exodus 13:21), God’s provision of water and food in the wilderness (10:3-4; Exodus 16-17) — was rooted in God’s grace through the (then) future work of Christ and, in some mysterious way, was accomplished through the presence of Christ. At the same time, Israel’s experiences prefigured Christ’s saving work and the accompanying signs of his saving work: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (10:3-4,16-17). This is why Paul’s warning comes with such a sharp edge for the Corinthians. All of Israel was “baptized” in the Red Sea (their initiation rite, so to speak) and continued to receive “spiritual” food and drink from Christ (i.e. manna and water). Nevertheless, some of them rebelled against God through idolatrous parties and accompanying sexual sin (10:7-8; Exodus 32:1-6; Numbers 25:1-3,9). Their baptism and spiritual food were of no spiritual benefit to them because they neglected communion with God and opted instead for communion with empty idols and sexual partners.* Paul is concerned that this is exactly what some of the Corinthians are in danger of doing. They have received the sign of baptism and continue to receive the spiritual food of the Lord’s Supper, so they may think that they are okay or even spiritually mature, but their participation in pagan parties and sexual immorality seems to show that they are actually communing with demons instead of with God (10:18-22). The way that they respond to Paul’s warning will demonstrate either the reality or fiction of their relationships with God, and Paul is hopeful that they will repent and prove God’s power in their own lives (10:11-13).
In the midst of Paul’s sharp rebuke, he gives us one of the most powerful passages in Scripture on the heart of the Christian faith, which is union/communion/relationship/fellowship (however you want to say it!) with God through Christ! Our life comes only through “participation” in the broken body and shed blood of Christ (10:16), and participation in his resurrection (with which Paul will conclude in chapter 15). There is real spiritual communion that takes place whenever we receive the Lord’s Supper in faith (“spiritual food … and spiritual drink”), setting the pattern for everyday life. And this communion with Christ is not a solo run! We participate in him together (10:17)! With this reminder of our common participation in the life of Christ, Paul begins to come back around to his first response to the issue at hand, which is love for others (10:24,28-29,32-33). Whether we are looking out for our brother or sister’s good, or fighting personal temptation, all of it is to the glory of God (10:31)!
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Again, direct parallels to the cultic worship of Roman gods are not common in our culture, yet we have many idols. Our idols are generally gifts from God (e.g. sport, sex, relationships, work, food and drink), but we turn them into gods. How do Paul’s warnings apply to our idols? He does not call the Corinthians to withdraw from the world or to stop eating food sacrificed to idols entirely, but he does call them to flee from situations in which they will actually be participating in idol worship. The lines are not usually as clear for us. What situations push me to put sport, work, etc. before God? What activities do I participate that might be good, but in the wrong setting (e.g. a party gone bad) they actually become participation in evil?
- Paul’s words about participation in Christ (10:16) help us to see why it is so important that we are daily making room in our hearts for him and experiencing him together (10:17)! It’s all about the relationship! We are either participating in Christ and glorifying Christ or we participating in evil — we are always giving our hearts to something! Take time to worship Jesus and to pray for your and others relationship with him!
* Note how we see that previous passages about sexual morality (e.g. 6:12-20) may be very closely tied to the cultic feasts/parties that Paul is addressing in chapters 8-10.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
Of course, “… because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (11:10). Why didn’t you say this sooner, Paul? Now everything is clear, right? Not quite. This is an extremely difficult passage to interpret for a number of reasons.
For the next four chapters, Paul turns his attention to matters of public worship. It flows smoothly out of the previous three chapters, which addressed the worship of idols and ended by contrasting cultic feasts with the Lord’s Supper (10:21). But Paul starts this important section of his letter on (what is for us) a confusing passage, largely because we are not familiar with the customs of the day. For instance, what kind of head covering was Paul referring to and what exactly did it signify in their culture, perhaps in contrast to practices within pagan worship? Does the word “head” (11:3) mean “source" or “authority"? We don’t know all the answers, yet in spite of our lack of clarity and without delving too far into the issue at hand, there are some important things we can gather from this passage.
First, the passage assumes that women actively participate in public worship through prayer and prophecy (11:5). Second, Paul appeals to creational or ontological differences between men and women (11:3,7-9) as the basis for the distinction between the ways that men and women participate in public worship.* Christians may disagree on exactly how these differences play out, but we cannot say that the differences are merely cultural. It seems that some of the Corinthians were denying gender differences just as we’ve seen that they were denying the importance of the body in many other respects. This may hint at the meaning of the puzzling “because of the angels” phrase in 11:10. The Corinthians should not be acting as if they have reached some kind of angelic, genderless state of being. Third, the creational differences between men and women may be expressed in different ways in different cultures. While we do not know the role that head coverings played in Corinth, we know that they would not carry precisely the same significance in our culture. Finally, whatever differences God has made between men and women or between the ways they ought to participate in the life of the church, Paul provides creational arguments for the interdependence of man and woman. In 11:11-12, he is likely seeking to prevent men from gaining any kind of superiority complex through a misunderstanding of his prior statements.
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Where do you go for your understanding of maleness and femaleness? Where do you go for your understanding of church and worship? To Scripture or to culture?
* Note that Paul is not trying to say everything there is to say about the nature of men and women in this passage. For instance, it’s clear from Scripture that Christ is also the “head” of women (11:3) and that women are also the image and glory of God (11:7). But to make his point, Paul stresses here the unique way in which women are the “glory of man.” Whatever conclusions we come to about the meaning of these verses, we cannot say that Paul is belittling women by calling men their “head” unless we also want to say that Paul is belittling Christ by calling God the Father his “head.”
1 Corinthians 11:17-33
Imagine going to a “bring your own meal” gathering at church, some enjoying tenderloin and sautéed scallops while others make due with rice and beans. Paul has already brought together the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of the Lord’s Supper when he described the bread as a sign of Jesus’ physical body (10:16) and of Jesus’ corporate body, which is his people (10:17). Now, due to an abuse believers from the lower socioeconomic strata, he gets much more specific about what it should look like for the church to come together as the body of Christ. He doesn’t give any commands here about caring for poor believers outside the walls of the church. He does that in other places (e.g. 2 Corithians 8:13-15), but here he is strictly concerned with the gathering of the church for worship. The rich and poor worship at one table (don’t miss this!) and it seems that the Lord’s Supper was part of a larger common meal, but in Corinth some wealthy believers are actually flaunting their wealth in front of believers who are struggling to provide for basic needs. Paul’s warning could hardly be more severe. To receive the bread signifying Christ’s crucified body without recognizing his corporate body, his people, is to “eat and drink judgment” on oneself (11:29).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Does my experience of Christ through “his body” cross socioeconomic lines? What relationships within the body of Christ do I need to pursue in order to know Christ more fully? Take time to reflect and ask God about potential blindspots in which you may be offending poorer believers and/or acting in a condescending manner. Take time to praise Jesus for revealing our own poverty, that through his crucifixion and resurrection we are made spiritually rich, one body with all believers.
1 Corinthians 12-14 (three days)
Love for the “weak" believer is a deciding factor in dealing with "food sacrificed to idols” (chapters 8-10), love for poorer believers informs the celebration of communion (11:17-33), and love for all believers must motivate the use of spiritual gifts! Similar to Paul's excursus on rights vs. love (9) in the middle of his response to the issue of food sacrificed to idols (8-10), he provides another excursus on love (13) as the heart of his response to the issue of spiritual gifts (12-14). Chapter 13 is one of the most familiar passages in Scripture for many Christians, frequently heard at weddings, but we often forget or do not realize that it comes in the context of spiritual gifts in common worship.
Not surprisingly, given what we know of the Corinthians' inflated view of their spirituality, some are taking pride in the more sensational or charismatic gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of speaking "in the tongues of men and of angels” (13:1). Instead of understanding the gifts as a means of serving the body of Christ, some are using the gift of “tongues" to affirm their supposedly angelic status and as a measure of others’ spirituality. The nature of the gift of tongues and the proper use of the gift of tongues has been a much-debated subject over the past 50 years and the theological debate itself, while important in some ways, can become an idol (or at least a distraction). Still, we may discern the heart of what Paul is saying.
In order to understand, it’s helpful to make a few distinctions about the gift of tongues as well as the gift of prophecy. Paul distinguishes between tongues/languages spoken in private, which God may grant for personal worship and need not be interpreted (14:2,4a,14,18-19*), and tongues spoken in common worship, which must be interpreted in order to build up the church (14:5,13,27-28). Whether these are human languages unknown to the speaker (as in Acts 2:8) or angelic languages, either would need to be interpreted in common worship. In regard to the “gift of prophecy,” I would agree with Gordon Fee that “the evidence in chap. 14 indicates that it consisted of spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages … intended for the edification or encouragement of the people” and were often/usually not predictive in nature (14:29-30; Fee 595). Interpreted tongues seem to function in the same way as prophecy.
So what are the take-aways from Paul’s instruction on spiritual gifts? There are six strong words of correction:
1) 12:1-3 — Authentic spiritual gifts exalt Christ as Lord. If a “gift” exalts someone else or in any way brings shame to Christ, it is not a true gift.
2) 12:4-31 — God gives a diversity of gifts for the good of the body of Christ and no gifts are to be expected for all or demanded by anyone. More dramatic gifts are not to be honored above behind-the-scenes gifts.
3) 13:1-7 — Love must be the driving force behind the use of gifts, or they become worthless (13:1-3). Notice how the famous, detailed description of love relates specifically to the diversity and usage of gifts and to what we know of the Corinthian situation (13:4-7; e.g. “does not envy, does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking”).
4) 13:8-13 — God’s gifts must be received with humility, for while love will remain, many of the gifts actually reveal our temporarily limited knowledge and experience of God in this age.
5) 14:1-25** — Intelligibility is the key to a gift’s benefit in common worship. It’s better to speak five words that people can understand than ten thousand unintelligible words (14:19). Notice how Paul’s exhortation to "desire the greater gifts” of 12:31 is illuminated by his corresponding exhortation to “excel in gifts that build up the church” in 14:12.
6) 14:26-40 — Spiritual gifts must be exercised in a way that promotes order, not chaos, in worship. Here, we may see a connection between this section and the section on women in worship in 11:1-16. If some women in the church were some of the ones who understood themselves to have angelic status (see devotional thoughts on 11:10) and, accordingly, were being particularly assertive and disruptive in their usage of tongues in public worship, then we can understand why Paul may insert a special word of instruction to them (11:34-35, but see footnote***).
Questions for Reflection and Prayer
- Many of us come from church traditions in which the gift of tongues is hardly even mentioned, much less idolized as the greatest gift. But almost all churches tend to exalt certain gifts above others, whether it be the gift of teaching, knowledge, serving, leading, etc. What gifts do you or your community of believers tend to esteem more highly than others? How might this be of detriment to your own faith, to the faith community and its mission, or to certain members in the community? Are some overlooked because they do not have the popular gifts?
- Have you seen, in yourself or your community, an emphasis on a spiritual gift, whether it be tongues or other gifts, that has actually taken the focus off of Christ instead of exalting Christ? How can you help move Christ back to the center without having a critical spirit?
- We need to understand Paul’s definition of love within the context of spiritual gifts and apply it to our use of spiritual gifts, but it is not bad to apply it more broadly. Use this passage to reflect on God’s love for you in Christ and to examine your own life (13:1-7).
- Our present is determined by our future (13:8-13). How is the future that Jesus has secured for us shaping your present reality? Are the things you are working toward and thinking about today shaped by this future or by the desire for worldly success and comfort?
* Where Paul says that he speaks in tongues “more than all of you,” Gordon Fee points out that “this is probably somewhat hyperbolic … After all, one may legitimately ask how he knew, to which the answer would be that he probably didn’t” (674).
** 14:21-22 can be especially confusing. Paul goes on to say that tongues do not help unbelievers and that prophecy leads unbelievers to Christ (14:23-25), so how are tongues a "sign for unbelievers” and how is prophecy “for believers”? The key is Paul’s usage of Isaiah 28 in 14:21, which is a word of judgment against unbelieving Israel, and the meaning of the word “sign,” which can function positively as a sign of salvation or negatively as a sign of judgment. In the case of the “ sign” of tongues, Paul is saying that the “sign” functions negatively. The Corinthians, in their childishness (14:20), think that tongues is THE positive sign of their spirituality, but, through his use of Isaiah, Paul says that “it is a 'sign’ that functions to the disadvantage of unbelievers, not to their advantage.” It is in this sense that tongues are a sign for unbelievers. Prophecy, on the other hand, is used by God to turn people into believers and, in this sense, is a sign “for believers” (Fee, 679-683).
*** This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret, especially when compared to Paul’s implicit approval of women praying and prophesying in 11:5. Is Paul calling for total silence as it seems at face value (but which would seem to contradict 11:5), or is he referring to a specific kind of speech/disruption within the worship service? In several ancient manuscripts, 14:35-36 actually come after 14:40, which among other reasons has led commentators like Gordon Fee to believe that these two verses were actually not in the original manuscript at all, but were added as an early “gloss” by a copyist. This is not the place to say more, but you can see that there is much reading to be done for those who wish.
1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 16