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The theme of this book is the battle between division and unity. But we must follow the wisdom of God. Not only are false division and true unity at odds, so also are true division and false unity at odds. Unity with idols is division. Division from evil is righteousness and real unity.
“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:21–25).
Around 50 A.D. the apostle Paul left Macedonia (northern Greece) and came to Corinth. An ancient city on that spot had been leveled by the Romans in 146 B.C., and was a pile of rubble for a century. In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a colony. The replanted city prospered, and by the time of Paul’s arrival there it was five times bigger than Athens, and was the capital of the province. The ancient travel writer Strabo (64/63 B.C.—24 A.D.) was the source of the report that the temple to Aphrodite there was staffed by a thousand sacred prostitutes.
When Paul arrived in Corinth, he moved in with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4). He was not confident when he first got there (1 Cor. 2:3). Silas and Timothy then arrived with good news from Macedonia (1 Thess. 3:6), which strengthened Paul’s preaching. At some point in their time here, Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for Paul’s sake (Rom. 16:3). There apparently had been some significant trouble, such that God made a point of reassuring Paul in a vision (Acts 18:9ff).
The most likely reconstruction of Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians is this. What we know as 1 & 2 Corinthians are probably 2 & 4 Corinthians. A lost communication to the Corinthians precedes 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9ff), and another lost letter, a “severe letter,” was sent before our 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:4. 1 Corinthians was probably written in 55 A.D. and 2 Corinthians was written in the autumn of the year after.
Summary of the Text
God determined that the world, with all its wisdom, would not be able to use that wisdom to come to know God (v. 21). Rather God chose to accomplish this great thing by means
of the foolishness of preaching (v. 21). Jews want a sign, and Greeks want graduate seminars in philosophy (v. 22), and God says no to both. The divine answer is the proclamation of Christ crucified (v. 23)—calculated by God to trip up the Jews and to seem like idiocy to the Greeks. God did not make this thing seeker friendly. This cross divides unbelieving Jews and Greeks from the community of the faithful. But to those who are called, Jews and Greeks both, Christ is both the power and wisdom of God (v. 24). In all this we see that God’s folly towers above man’s wisdom, and God’s weakness isstill omnipotent (v. 25).
The church at Corinth was full of factions. These factions were based on a number of false standards. They were divided over things like the status of various social groups, disputes at law, food issues, accommodation with idolatry, sex tangles, spiritual gifts, and the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s great concern is the reconciliation of these divisions between God’s saints, but in order to accomplish this, there must be division from sin. Unless you break with sin, you will eventually break with everything else. Unless you declare war on sin, you will eventually be at war with everything else. To make peace with wolves is to declare war on sheep.
The Divine Strategy
The plan for the church is a harmonious building. You are God’s building, Paul says (1 Cor. 3:9). The word is oikodome.
The plan for the church is a harmonious family. The phrase brother or sister is used by Paul around 40 times in this letter. This is clearly related to the theme just mentioned, that of a house or building.
In order to have this true unity, there has to be a sharp break from Egypt. The sea was divided, and so it was that Egypt and Israel were divided. But that division still needed to be pursued. Not only did there need to be an Exodus of Israel from Egypt, there also needed to be an exodus of Egyptian ways from Israelite hearts (1 Cor. 10:7ff). Otherwise, all we have done is plant a colony of Egypt in the wilderness.
To Return to the Text
In order to accomplish this great miracle of deliverance, Jesus had to die. Since it involved external bodies, a powerful deity like Zeus could have gotten Israel out of Egypt. But in order to get Egypt out of Israel, the Son of God had to die. Right after Paul warned the Corinthians not to fall into the same trap the Israelites had fallen into, he reminds us that the foundation of our unity as Christians is the fact that Christ was broken. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16–17). Christ was one, and was broken, so that we who were broken might become one.
What kind of sense does this make? It is the folly of preaching. It is the folly of the cross. God takes a glorious unity and breaks it on the cross so that all our brokenness might be placed on Christ, and in that breaking, be made whole. Christ crucified is Christ for the world. Christ crucified is the only kind of Savior that can help the world—meaning He is the only kind of Savior that can save.