1Corinthians 1-4 are one of the best examples of why it’s necessary to study an entire letter rather than sets of verses here and there. We won’t accurately understand Paul unless we understand the situation into which he was writing.
The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church at Corinth from Ephesus around 55 AD. He wrote this letter in response to a written letter from the church at Corinth and a verbal report about the situation in the church. It is this Q&A that gives us the structure of the letter.
In his greeting Paul says two important things about himself: 1) He is an apostle of Jesus Christ and 2) he is an apostle by the will of God. Paul’s authority will become an issue in the letter.
After his greeting when Paul expresses his gratitude for what God has done in Corinth, Paul thanks God for making them rich in speech and knowledge. Speech and knowledge is the first issue he addresses. 1Corinthians 1:10 begins the body of the letter, and his first topic in 1:10 which he discusses through the first 4 chapters.
Paul gives us 3 kinds of clue that he has more than who favors what teacher on his mind.
Clues from context
- 1Corinthians 1-4 stick to a theme: 1Corinthians 3:4-5; 1Corinthians 4:6
- 1Corinthians 1:17 introduces the topic of “cleverness of speech” or “wisdom of word.” The Greek word wisdom (Strong’s G4678) appears in 16 verses in the first 4 chapters. Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the gospel and defends the fact that the gospel is true wisdom.
- Paul focuses the discussion on himself and Apollos.
- Paul spends much of the 1Corinthians 1-4 defending himself and how he speaks: 1Corinthians 1:17; 1Corinthians 2:1-5; 1Corinthians 3:1-2; 1Corinthians 4:3-6
Clues from other Scriptures
- We learn from Acts 18:24-19:1 that Apollos is a skilled and eloquent debater who taught in Corinth after Paul left. Unlike Paul he had success in persuading Jews to believe the gospel.
- 1Corinthians 16:12 implies that no rift exists between Paul and Apollos.
- In 2Corinthians 10:9-11 we learn that the Corinthians found Paul personally unimpressive and his speech contemptible.
- 2Corinthians 11:5-6 imply that some in Corinth found Paul inferior to the other apostles and unskilled in speech.
Clues from History
- We learn from Greek history that the sophists were a influential group skilled in debate and rhetoric.
- Sophists were famous for taking any side of an argument and winning the debate.
- At the time Paul wrote, their style of debate was in fashion.
If we put all those clues together a deeper picture emerges than fashionable cliques and who is the best teacher.
- Some are unimpressed with Paul, they find him unskilled, contemptible in speech.
- Apollos who is a man of words and a powerful debater comes to Corinth after Paul leaves and impresses the Corinthians with his ability to argue and win debates.
- A split develops with some in the church judging Paul, finding him deficient, and rejecting his authority as an apostle. For them Apollos is their guy.
- Paul responds by defending the way he speaks without sophistry (without wisdom of words). He says the wisdom of the world is foolish when compared with the gospel and they should stop judging him.
- Paul is NOT arguing for harmony. Paul is arguing that the all have the same understanding of the gospel.
- The deeper problem is their wrong perspective which has led to the divisions.
- The bond that unites us is the gospel of Christ crucified.
- The strategy for unity is not to overlook deep theological issues; The strategy is to pursue truth.
- Unity for the sake of unity is conformity – not unity.
- The warning against valuing style over substance is one we ought take seriously today.
- The content of the message is crucial. The eloquence of the delivery is not.