Updated: Apr 26
In a world that hates Christians, we need to be united with one another.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 1:10-25
In 1 Corinthians, Paul confronts the young church with the great sins of their divisions and immorality. We still have factions and disunity in our churches today, and Paul's solution for them is still the solution for us: there is one Jesus, one faith, and one salvation. We must unite around Jesus and the simple gospel message.
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved. 1 Corinthians 1:18
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Power of Unity
Without naming names, ask your class to think about the importance of unity when a crisis hits. Maybe a family preparing for a funeral, or a workplace hearing rumors of layoffs, or a sports team coping with an unexpected loss. In what way does it make a difference if that group is unified or not? Have you ever been through something like that? When you’re in a group that doesn’t trust each other, doesn’t like each other, or doesn’t care about each other, even a small crisis becomes a major nightmare. Paul wanted this dysfunctional group of Christians in Corinth to learn that lesson before their church imploded.
This Week's Big Idea: Corinth and First Corinthians
Corinth is an ancient city that rose and fell many times over many thousands of years as the power of Athens and Sparta (to its west) shifted. Its strategic importance was tremendous, controlling all land access to the peninsula and controlling access to both the Aegean and Ionian Seas (remember that in the ancient world, most people sailed in view of land). It’s heyday roughly coincided with that of Athens, as technology had enabled them to develop a very important type of warship (the “trireme”) which they used to help Athens defeat Persia and then control trade in the seas around Greece. For hundreds of years, they switched their alliance between Sparta to Athens, much to everyone’s chagrin.
Their wealth was used to build an ornate city. Their rich clay soil was suited for very ornate pottery which attracted artists and wealthy traders, which in turn attracted “high class” brothels. This led to their famous reputation, “Not everyone is able to go to Corinth”. They hosted the Isthmian Games (the year before and after the Olympic Games).
After Alexander the Great died, his generals fought over Corinth due to its strategic importance. So, when Rome attacked the Greeks, they utterly destroyed Corinth, and it sat deserted for 100 years until Julius Caesar rebuilt it as a Roman Colony. In the Roman Empire, Corinth became an important intersection of economics, culture, and politics for Romans and Greeks. People were transferred to Corinth from all over the empire, making it a unique melting pot of religions and customs. Many slaves and laborers were stationed there to build ships and transport ships 4 miles across the peninsula. When Claudius banished the Jews from Rome (remember last week?), many of them relocated to Corinth. No one culture held sway in Corinth, making it easier for this new Christian message to take root. But Corinth still had a reputation for immorality.
Introducing 1 Corinthians: What to Say about Paul’s Letters
Because we just covered this in Acts, your class shouldn’t be too frightened by this timeline. During Paul’s “Second Missionary Journey”, Paul starts a church in Corinth (Acts 18, ~52-53 AD) and stays there for 18 months. He eventually continued his travels, spending his longest time in Ephesus (Acts 20, ~54-57 AD).
[The First Letter] Apparently, sometime early in this stay, Paul sent a letter to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9) that they misunderstood and ignored (including about that incestuous church member). This letter no longer exists. It indicates that Paul did not have a rock-solid relationship with everyone in the church.
[The Second Letter] Toward the end of his stay in Ephesus (Timothy had already left), a delegation from Corinth (“Chloe’s house”, 1 Cor 1:11) came to him to report troubles and questions from the church in Corinth. Paul responds with First Corinthians. He tells them he plans on visiting them for the winter (1 Cor 16:6), so this letter would seem to have been written in Spring of 55 or 56 AD. Paul first sent Timothy to Corinth, but Timothy found things so bad in the church that Paul decided to make an unplanned visit himself (not recorded in Acts). It was a “painful” visit (2 Cor 12:14) that demonstrated how fractured the church had become.
[The Third Letter] When Paul returned to Ephesus, he wrote a “tearful” letter (2 Cor 2:4-11) to them that was so grievous he regretted sending it. This letter no longer exists. However, it got the attention of many church members in Corinth who encouraged Paul to come back to see them.
[The Fourth Letter] To prepare them for his return, Paul wrote Second Corinthians. In that letter, he defended his authority and encouraged those who stuck with him. He also called out the influence of some enemies that had infiltrated the church in order to disrupt it.
So there you go. Paul had a very tense relationship with this church. He wrote them many letters and made emergency visits. Even Paul was stressed out by a church! As your class reads these letters, give them this perspective: have you ever had a new teacher or advisor that you didn’t really trust? How did you respond to their training sessions? To their advice? How antagonistic were you, and how did they handle the adversity? Paul’s being pretty gracious in here . . .
“Paul shows the new Christians in Corinth that all of life's most complex problems can be seen through the lens of the gospel.”
Part 1: Call for Unity (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction.
Start reading the letter from the beginning, please. Note the appearance of the ideas of holiness, speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts. Those will be key themes throughout this letter.
Paul jumps right into the heart of the problem: the problem with factions in a church. The Greek word for “urge” is also where we get “urgency”. This matter of division is nothing to ignore! [Jump in right here with a question: “Do you think it is important for a church to be unified, and why?” Try to help your class see from the very beginning that church unity is not a secondary issue.] To do so, Paul immediately invokes the name of Jesus. He gives four levels of unity:
“Agree in what you say”; we find out later in the letter refers to the message of the cross. It is a divisive message; they must speak consistently about it.
“No divisions”; this does not mean disagreements—it means “tearing apart”. Because the church had focused on personalities rather than Jesus, they spoke and acted in opposition to one another (not working together at all).
“United in understanding”; the word for united is a medical term that described resetting a broken bone. Yes, fractures happen, but they can be fixed.
“The same conviction”; whereas understanding refers to what they know, conviction refers to what they think about it. Not only must they agree on the facts, but they must agree on why they are significant.
The very best example of unity we have is the Trinity. Ask how the Trinity specifically had to work together for the plan of salvation. What would have happened if any of them had disagreed? That’s the same “kind” of unity that we need to strive for today.
Aside: First Century Letters
Paul would not have written any of his letters alone any more than he traveled alone. When they stayed somewhere, they would not have had small private rooms but more likely an open apartment with breezeways and large windows to keep the space cool and to let as much light in as possible. And in fact, Paul would have dictated his letters, meaning that everyone could hear the letter composed and been able to offer suggestion throughout.
Letter writing would have been extremely expensive. Black ink was made from ground charcoal and cheap (but not waterproof). Pens were made from reeds and also cheap. But paper was not. “Notes” would have been sent on shards of broken pottery, and some people had wooden tablets that they could wash off and reuse. But dispatched letters made of parchment were a big deal. They were made from goatskin and sewn together into scrolls. Slightly less expensive was papyrus, which is what Paul likely used while in Europe. Reeds were sliced into thin strips, arranged at right angles, moistened and then dried. Secretaries would paste these sheets together and roll them up (scroll); the standard scroll size in Paul’s day seems to be 20 feet. (Very long letters, like Luke/Acts, would have been separated into two different scrolls to make them carryable). They would write the letter for their patron and then cut off the excess papyrus for their next patron. A letter the length of Romans or 1 Corinthians might have cost the equivalent of $2,000! And that’s not counting the price of the courier.
We know that the secretary Paul used to write Romans was Tertius. Custom was that the author would write something in his own hand at the end of the letter, and it would be crude compared with the rest of the handwriting (the ability to read and write are not the same). Secretaries would have to be skilled in cutting and pasting papyrus, making pens and ink, lining the sheets, and following convention for different parts of the empire.
Paul’s letters are very careful, indicating that they would have gone through a drafting process. The secretary would have brought a stack of reusable wax tablets and transcribed as Paul spoke very slowly. After so many hours, the secretary would have gone home to prepare a formal draft of that section to review the next day (or two). A letter the size of 1 Corinthians could have taken weeks to write. After the entire letter was satisfactory, the secretary would have prepared two final copies (one to send to Corinth and one for Paul to keep). Paul would have made his personal remarks at the end, and the secretary would seal the scroll with clay and knots and give it to a courier.
That’s why letters were so expensive!
The most important thing to know is that Paul would not have “pounded out” his letters in a late night like we do today. Paul would have invested multiple weeks of preparing and drafting each one of his letters. Does that change the way you appreciate them?
Part 2: Contempt for Divisions (1 Corinthians 1:11-16)
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by members of Chloe’s people, that there is rivalry among you. What I am saying is this: One of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name. I did, in fact, baptize the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t recall if I baptized anyone else.
These are some of the most important words for all churches that we could ever read. You cannot overemphasize them! Note that we don’t know anything about this Chloe—may be a church member, may be a business associate, may be the town gossip. But Paul considered the source trustworthy. The church members were not treating one another with respect. Instead, they were picking sides and gloating about the side they had picked. To illustrate this humorously, mention a sports team or a college and see how everyone lines up. Paul did the equivalent of mentioning UGA, GA Tech, Bama, and Clemson, because that’s what the church thought about Paul, Apollos, Peter/Cephas, and Christ! If they had any spiritual maturity in this matter, they would have known that Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus were all completely united!
The gospel is a team effort, and everyone plays a role. Jesus, of course, plays the most significant role. But He commissioned Peter and Paul to take His message to the world. Paul later discipled Apollos. Both Paul and Apollos ministered in Corinth. Neither of them were “jealous” of the praise of Jesus. And then Paul kicks it to the logical extreme—one that we can use today for those people who idolize certain pastors—”Is that pastor responsible for your salvation?” Of course not! Everything in Christianity is about Jesus and only Jesus. When we blow the horn for a pastor or a church for any reason other than “they faithfully teach the truth about Jesus”, we have missed the mark.
Baptism is a key action in Christianity. Jesus told us to do it in the name of “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—not in the name of a pastor or a church. Getting puffed up over who baptized you or where you were baptized (I’ve heard Christians brag about being baptized in the Jordan River) is a problem. Paul then goes on a tangent about who he may or may not have baptized in the Corinthian church. Crispus is likely the former leader of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:8). Gaius may be the “hospitable” man in Romans 16:23 whose house may have been next door to the synagogue in Corinth. According to 1 Cor 16:15, the household of Stephanas were Paul’s first converts in Corinth, and Stephanas was with Paul when he wrote 1 Corinthians. His point was that everything done in the name of Jesus should have united the church, not divided them. Why? Because there was already division enough when it came to Jesus.
Aside: The Corinthian Column
The Corinthian Column is the most ornate of all of the classical styles of columns, named for Corinth but probably originating in Athens. These columns are beautifully symmetric but also easily broken, the remaining examples being found inside small temples or up high, like the top of the Colosseum. The legend is that after a young girl died in Corinth, a basket of her favorite things was placed on her tomb. The following year, shoots from an acanthus tree had grown through the basket, which a sculptor copied.
Part 3: The Cross that Divides (1 Corinthians 1:17-25)
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the one who is wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what is preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Christians need to be united in Christ because the message of Christ divides us from the rest of the world. This passage includes some of my favorite words in the Bible because they put all of our human ingenuity in perspective. Note that we cannot fulfill the Great Commission without baptizing, so Paul is not intentionally minimizing baptism. But where baptism has become a source of contention, Paul is glad he is not a part of that. At the end of the day, baptism is not what saves us, so it should never be allowed to cloud the truths of the gospel. (By the way, not to go too far down this road, I do believe that infant baptism clouds the truths of the gospel, which is why I believe it appropriate to make a big deal about believers’ baptism.) Why? Because the message of the cross is counter-intuitive to all things human as it is; everything we do to make it more confusing is irresponsible. What makes the cross seem so foolish to the world?
To save your life you must lose it. The first will be last. Salvation is free, but we cannot earn it. Those concepts are offensive to people in the world. Sadly, those who believe that God’s plan of salvation is foolish are perishing. We, however, know that it is the power of God. Why? Why does Paul draw such a hard line between God’s wisdom and human “wisdom”? I think it’s simple: if we could make a purely intellectual argument for salvation, there would be no need for faith. God believes it better for people to be saved through faith than through argument. And that’s because the human brain in fickle. Salvation based on intellect would be inherently biased toward people with education, with training in logic and argument. But salvation is for every human being, from the “smartest” to the “simplest”. And there is another level to this: humans tend to be egotistical (no, really!). Have you ever been around a really smart person who wanted to make sure you knew how smart he was? Yikes! (Besides, even the smartest person ever is nothing compared to the wisdom of God.)
Paul splits humanity into two groups: Jews and Greeks. For Jews, the “crucified Messiah” did not match up at all with what they expected God to do, so they refused to believe it. For Greeks, God becoming flesh and dying make no philosophical sense, so they found it foolish. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith, people from both groups would come to believe.
End your lesson with this: do you see factions in your church? (Yes—every church has them.) How can putting our focus on Jesus eliminate those factions? Try to be specific. See if there is something you can specifically work on to help improve the unity of your (our) church! And pray for God’s help!