The letter we know as 1 Corinthians is actually the second of four letters Paul wrote to this church. It was likely written in 55 A.D. near the end of his three-year ministry in Ephesus. Although there are several sub-themes addressed, Paul’s primary theme is for the church to work together and put Christ first for the advancement of the gospel.
Members had been promoting themselves and their spiritual gifts, creating an internal hierarchy which divided the church. Men and women were disruptive and argumentative during worship, arriving early to indulge in the bread and meat and get drunk on the wine. Those advanced in biblical knowledge, rather than uplifting newer believers, often used that knowledge to act as a stumbling block to those seeking Christ. And many had not transformed their own cultural worldviews of sexual and ethical immorality. Paul writes this letter to call them to task because they had not responded with repentance to his first letter (5:9).
The Imperatives (The Commands)
- I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1:10)
- Let each one take care how he builds upon the foundation of Jesus Christ laid by me, by Apollos, and by other servants of the Lord. (3:10)
- Do not worship or boast in men, whether Paul, or Apollos or Peter. We are all Christ’s, as Christ is God’s. Regard us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (3:22-23; 4:1)
- Do not favor one leader over another; do not puff yourself up if you are a leader over another who leads. Do not add to Scripture; it is sufficient on its own. (4:6)
(emphasis added) I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brothers or sisters if they are immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? God judges those outside. (5:9-13)
- Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (7:17,20,35)
- Take care that your “rights” do not become a stumbling block to others. Do I not have the right to eat and drink? Yet, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make him stumble. (8:9,13; 9:4)
- Do not worship idols; do not indulge in sexual immorality; to not test Christ; do not grumble; do not think you are beyond sin, less your pride causes you to fall. (10:6-12)
- All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (10:23-24)
- So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (10:31)
- Pursue love (14:1)
- Strive to excel in building up the church (14:12)
- Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like adults, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (16:13)
Paul was exhorting members of this church to always put Christ first and others next. It frankly didn’t matter to Paul what their rights were. He admonished them to be selfless, to not demand their rights, particularly if their rights might have even a small chance of being a stumbling block to anyone receiving Christ.
He also made it clear we in the church were to monitor ourselves, not those outside the church. If only we would engage in cleaning out our own houses first, we might set the example Paul seeks us to set when he reminds us that things may be lawful, but they may not be helpful or they may not build others up.
As we seek to do everything for the glory of God, we automatically pursue love.
The Indicatives (Truths in Christ)
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1:4-7 NRSV)
- Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the World? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1:20-21, 25)
- Because of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1:30-31; Jeremiah 9:23-24)
- As it is written, “What no eyes has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him,” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (2:9-10; Isaiah 64:4)
- Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (3:16)
- If anyone loves God, he is known by God. (8:3)
- No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (10:13)
- It is the same God who empowers all the gifts in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (12:6-7)
- All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as He wills. (12:11)
- For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, thought many, are one body, so it is with Christ…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (12:12,25)
- God is not a God of confusion but of peace (14:33)
- For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (15:22)
In a large nutshell, Paul tells us we have no right to be spiritual elitists since God most often chooses those who the world considers foolish, weak or shameful to receive wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. These are the people who carry His true message. We must continually work to cleanse ourselves of sexual and ethical immorality because we have no authority with those outside the church. The more we focus on this, the less we’ll be called hypocrites by the world.
Sexual immorality includes things we’d prefer to ignore within the church, like domestic abuse, child abuse and incest. Ethical immorality includes those mentioned by Paul and those things we sweep under the rug; greed and coveting; those who mock God and use His name in vain; alcoholism and drug addiction; deception (which Paul combines with coveting). How many families and business people do you know in your own church who are guilty of these offenses and need firm, loving, guiding hands to come alongside them?
We all must allow Christ to keep us alive in His love through abiding in the Spirit. We are people who, if not lived in sin, lapsed temporarily into sin, and we were washed, sanctified, and justified. And it is possible, with God’s grace, for them to be saved as we were saved.
And, as Paul so eloquently and memorably said, “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” (13:13)