After our struggles with Romans we are now reading 1 Corinthians in the Twitter Bible study #Rom2Rev. Due to family health issues, I have gotten behind the discussion, though not the reading. Here are some (non-theological) thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1-4.
Throughout these chapters Paul is instructing the Corinthians to be wise and foolish! They are to follow the wisdom of the Gospel message which seems to be foolishness to non-believers.
I once read an article in which the writer discussed our “strange dead God”. He had been questioned by someone of another faith who could not understand why we worship a dead God. From his perspective this was beyond understanding and probably “foolish”. Paul preached Christ crucified – this was the centre of his message and in isolation would indeed be foolish. However, as we know, Christ did not stay dead – He rose and is alive. This is absolutely fundamental to our faith, as Paul explains later in this letter:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ — whom He did not raise up if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:13-17 HCSB)
Paul’s message to the Corinthians, and to us, is that Jesus is not what the world expects. The Jews looked for a great warrior king who would sweep away the Romans and other conquerors for ever. The gentiles, while having no messianic expectations, had pretty definite ideas of what a diety should look like. The crucified Christ was, and is, offensive. He does not meet worldly expectations. Chapters 1 and 2 exhort the readers to follow Christ, not Paul, Apollos or any other leader/teacher. The readers are urged to be spiritually wise, not worldly wise. How many of our unsaved friends and family shake their heads and roll their eyes at us? As saved, Christ-followers we are deemed to be foolish by the world’s standards. Paul emphasises that this foolishness is wisdom in God’s eyes.
The Corinthians were so busy following particular leaders and worrying about looking wise in the eyes of the world that they were not spiritual, their faith was superficial. They were really no different from the non-believers around them. In fact they were much worse because they had heard the truth, had acepted it but were not living it. Chapter 2 going into 3 tells the believers that they should be spirit-lead and as such they cannot be judged by the world, which does not understand God’s wisdom. The book of Proverbs gives much advice on the importance of wisdom and understanding:
Get wisdom, get understanding; don’t forget or turn away from the words of my mouth. Don’t abandon wisdom, and she will watch over you; love her, and she will guard you. Wisdom is supreme — so get wisdom. And whatever else you get, get understanding.(Prov 4:5-7 HCSB)
Knowledge is not enough, we can know all things but if we are not wise and can understand the knowledge, then we cannot apply it to our lives.
Paul leads on from his instructions about wisdom to being spiritual (we had an interesting discussion about this on Twitter). The spiritual person is one who has accepted Jesus as her/his saviour and is living life accordingly. The Corinthians were still living in the same way as the gentiles who knew no better, they were not mature as Paul expected that they should be.
The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still fleshly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and living like unbelievers? For whenever someone says, “I’m with Paul,” and another, “I’m with Apollos,” are you not unspiritual people? (1Cor 2:16-3:4)
How this resonates with today’s church. People follow “famous” (and sometimes infamous) preachers/pastors/leaders etc. and are distracted from the central Gospel message of Christ crucified. Paul, Apollos, Peter etc were “co-cworkers with God”. Paul uses two anologies referring to the Corinthians as a field which Paul and Apollos have planted and as a building for which they have laid the foundation. I find these comparisons rather confusing. The field is the Corinthian congregation which Paul has planted, Apollos has watered but the growth is completely attributed to God. In the building analogy, Paul has laid the foundation, which is Christ, but the church are the builders. I understand both analogies, but they seem to be very different to me (thoughts appreciated). Confusion not withstanding, the message is that it isn’t enough to simply say “I follow X, and therefore I’m Ok”. Our wisdom and understanding must grow and keep growing. Paul was dissapointed that the Corinthians had not matured beyond petty disputes. They should have been taking in meat but were still on milk, they were still spiritual babies.
Chapters 3 going into 4 again appeals again for the Corinthians be “foolish” in the world’s eyes in order to be truly wise. They must avoid worrying about looking good and being the best, it is enough to know and follow Christ. Apparently the leaders were acting in a superior manner, Paul reminds them that they should be servant leaders, just as he and Apollos were. I’m very much reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people — greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me — a sinner! ’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 HCSB)
When I first read Paul’s letters, it seemed to me that in places he was terribly arrogant, I think that parts of this letter give that impression.
However as always, context is essential. Paul is their spiritual father, he knows what is best for them and loves them. He does not want to chastise them, but will if it is necessary. Paul concludes this section of his letter with the words:
What do you want? Should I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? (1 Cor 4:21 HCSB)