By Jenny Fulton
Why was this book written? People once wrote letters for various reasons. Sometimes they wanted to catch up with people they hadn’t seen for awhile and the letter was their only means of communication. Sometimes they had important news to share. Paul had a very specific reason for writing his letter.
One of the first things this apostle does in his letter, after establishing his authority and greeting his audience, is to let his readers know exactly why he is writing to them. Identifying this purpose is essential to understanding and interpreting the rest of the book.
The Purpose: to bring unity to a diverse and divided group of believers.
Paul begins by stating his authorship and authority. He is Paul, a special messenger (apostle) of Jesus Christ through the will of God. With him is Sosthenes, a fellow brother (v. 1).
To review, Sosthenes shows up in Acts 18:17. He’s the second leader of the synagogue mentioned in that section. The first, Crispus, stepped down from his position soon after Paul arrived and was the first to be baptized by Paul. We don’t know when Sosthenes became the leader, but we know he was firmly in the role by the end of Paul’s time in Corinth. After the Roman proconsul refused to prosecute or even hear the case against Paul, the Jews, for some reason I don’t understand, decided to take out all their anger against Sosthenes. He was beaten in front of everyone, including the proconsul, and nobody lifted a finger to help him. By the time of this letter, Sosthenes has apparently become well-known to the Corinthian church and has joined up with Paul. Someone who was once against this apostle and the message of Jesus Christ, is now joined in fellowship. Already, the message of unity and fellowship rings out.
In verse 2, Paul addresses his audience: “To the church in Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (NASB).
Taken according to the Greek words and meaning, this verse would read, “To the gathering of God’s people [ekklesia] in Corinth, dedicated to the service and loyalty of God [agiazo] in union with [en] Christ Jesus, people dedicated to the service and loyalty of God [agios] having been called with all who in every place call on the name our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”
Here again, unity is emphasized. All the believers who gather at Corinth have been called by God to be dedicated to His service. This same calling extends beyond Corinth to include everyone everywhere who also calls on the name of our Lord.
In the next few verses, Paul affirms the church and reminds them of what they have all received from God, regardless of their race or situation in life. They have received grace, been made rich by God in His Word [logos] and knowledge. The testimony of Christ was confirmed in them, they have not been lacking in any gift.
And then we get to what I see as being the key verses in this first chapter and the theme and purpose of the entire book.
Key Verses: I Corinthians 1:9-10. “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (NASB).
These verses are packed with meaning. First Paul reiterates the commonality that binds them together: they have been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord. Because of this, Paul is pleading with them to agree and not be divided.
And then come my questions. What does it mean to agree? Does it mean everyone has to think the same about everything? What does it mean to be made complete and to have the same mind and the same judgment?
In order to help me gain a greater understanding, I decided to take a look at the original Greek words and their meanings. Taken with those words and their meaning, this is how the verse would read.
“Now I plead [parakaleo] with you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all to self gather [to autos lego] and that there be no division among you, but that you be established [katartizo] in the same inner attitude [nous] and in the same will and desire [gnoma].”
One thing that stood out to me as I studied this translation was the word for agree. It’s taken from the word gather, which carries the idea of picking out that which is good. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament described the meaning of lego in this manner: “To gather is to pick out things which from some standpoint are alike.”
According to this definition, Paul isn’t telling or expecting the Corinthians to have the same thoughts and opinions about everything. Instead, he is first emphasizing that they have all been called to fellowship with Jesus. Because they have been called to fellowship with the same Lord Jesus Christ, he pleads with them to find and hold to those things in which they agree so that they will be established, held strong and firm, in the same mental attitudes and desires. In other words, unity among believers begins by recognizing that we have all been called to the same purpose – to serve God in fellowship with Christ Jesus. If we are of the same heart, mind, and desire in this area, we will be established as a united community of believers.
Unity among believers begins by recognizing that we have all been called to the same purpose – to serve God in fellowship with Christ Jesus. – 1 Corinthians 1:9-10Tweet
After emphasizing the points of unity, Paul then goes on to address two of the areas in which there has been division.
- People are dividing themselves based on which human spiritual leader they follow.
- People are becoming divided by following the world’s wisdom instead of focusing on and adhering to God’s wisdom.
Impact of Worldly Wisdom
Verses 18-31 comprise an interesting comparison of worldly wisdom versus God’s wisdom. Seen in the greater context of this chapter and following the description of what is dividing the church, it would seem that adhering to the wisdom of the world rather than the wisdom of God is one means by which Christians are divided.
According to Paul,
- The world’s wisdom divides, but God’s wisdom unifies.
- The world’s wisdom is foolishness to God, and God’s wisdom looks like foolishness to the world.
- The crucifixion of Jesus, his physical pain and death, is foolishness to the world, but to God and those who follow Him, it is wisdom and power.
- Following the world’s wisdom causes the things of God to look like foolishness but following the wisdom of God sheds light upon the true state and status of the world’s wisdom.
- Following worldly wisdom leads to boasting, but following God’s wisdom leads to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
So what does this mean for us? What can we learn and apply from this first chapter of Corinthians?
Like the Corinthian church, Christians today are a divided group. We separate ourselves based on our political views, our denominational preferences, which pastor or speaker we think is best, our personalities, experiences, perceptions of life…. We are different, there’s no getting around that, but in the midst of these differences of opinion, we can be unified if we remember and focus on that which we have in common: a devotion to God and fellowship with His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. With this as our starting point, we will be better able to relate to one another in love.
Of course, in practice, unity isn’t nearly this simple. In the following chapters, we’ll see how Paul guides the church towards unity in those areas in which they are divided.
What Do You Think?
Does the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom always agree? Do they ever agree?
What are some examples of worldly wisdom verses Godly wisdom?
Have you seen division and disunity within the church?
What are some of the causes and sources of the disunity you’ve seen?
Is there a way to address the divisions and bring unity or is it too late?
Have you seen or been part of a united church? What united them?
Do you think this letter can be applied to churches today?
In this Series
Chapter 1: Where Unity Begins
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1 Corinthians Bible Study
For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in.
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