1. Healing Church Divisions (1 Corinthians 1:1-17a)

Audio (23:46)

(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20), oil on canvas, 39-1/8 x 52-3/8, Blaffer Foundation Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20), oil on canvas, 39-1/8 x 52-3/8", Blaffer Foundation Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Corinth is a troubled church. Paul had founded it in 50 AD and spent a year and a half there before returning to Antioch and then Jerusalem. But the church seems plagued by problems -- more problems than the average five-year-old church plant. Paul is now in Ephesus. He has written a "previous letter" rebuking vice and fornication by church members (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11), but it has been rebuffed. He has heard from Chloe's household (1:11) about dissensions and has received a letter from the church asking various questions about marriage and other topics.

It is clear from the overall tone of 1 Corinthians that this is not a warm cordial letter such as he wrote to his friends at Philippi. Rather it is an impassioned appeal -- and sometimes a severe rebuke -- to help get the Corinthians back on the right path.

But Paul doesn't begin with rebuke. He opens the letter with gracious words that center on their common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

"1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ -- their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (1:1-3)

Paul and Sosthenes (1:1)

"Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes." (1:1)

While he is writing this letter from Ephesus, Paul has been joined by Sosthenes, probably one of the leaders of the Corinthian church. In Acts 18:17 a Sosthenes is identified as the synagogue leader in Corinth. This is probably the same person, now a convert to Christianity, since Paul's mention indicates that he is known to the Corinthians.4

Paul begins with a clear claim to apostleship "by the will of God." He is not an apostle by his own volition, but by God's. He asserts his office of apostle here because his authority has been questioned and undermined by some in Corinth (4:9; 9:1-2; 15:9). He is seeking to reestablish his credibility with them.

Sanctified Saints (1:2)

"To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ -- their Lord and ours." (1:2)

The phrase "church of God" is used four times in this letter (1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9) and only occasionally elsewhere (2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15). Probably Paul is making the point that the church does not belong to the rebellious Corinthians, but to God himself. God sets the standards, not man.

Notice how Paul describes the members of the Church -- "sanctified (hagiazō) in Christ Jesus and called to be holy (hagios)" (NIV) or "called to be saints" (NRSV, KJV). Moreover, they are not unique in this. "All those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" are saints.

"Sanctified" is the verb hagiazō, "set aside something or make it suitable for ritual purposes, consecrate, dedicate."5 When used of people, it indicates those who have been removed from the realm of the common, and who are now set aside for God himself. The noun hagios is used in the same clause referring to the people who have been thus set apart and consecrated to God: "believers, loyal followers, saints."6

You might ask: How can I be a saint? I sin. I mess up. I'm no saint. Paul begs to differ. You are a saint, not because of your own personal perfection, but because God himself has set you apart to belong to him. "Saint" isn't a reflection on your state of perfection, but your state of ownership. You belong to God and he declares you "set apart" and "holy." He has called you to this role. The only question now is whether your calling will motivate you to actualize this title in your personal obedience and love for him. Like it or not, you're a saint!

To get the maximum benefit from this study, be sure to stop at each discussion question, which help you process and understand the most important points. If you're in a group, discuss these questions among one another. If you're studying by yourself, it will help you to write out your answer. If you like, then go to the online Forum with the web address that follows each question and post your answer -- or at least read others' answers. This will help you go deeper yourself!

Q1. (1 Corinthians 1:2) "What does "called to be holy" or "called to be saints" mean? What is a saint according to the Bible? Why is it so comfortable for us to say, "I'm no saint"? What is expected of a person who has been set apart as the personal property of the living God? What kind of behavior does the world expect of those who claim to be followers of Christ?

The opening of the letter concludes with a blessing, like Paul's other letters.

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (1:3)

"Grace" (charis) was the typical Greek greeting. "Peace" (shalom) was the typical Hebrew greeting. Paul combines them and infuses them with new meaning. "Grace no longer means "good wishes" but refers to the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Peace with God is the result of that gift.

Thanksgiving for the Corinthians (1:4-7)

The form of many Greek letters of this period calls for a brief word of personal encouragement, thanksgiving, or praise for answered prayer. What makes this word of thanksgiving so amazing is that Paul is thanking God for some of the Corinthians' qualities that are an annoyance to him. His ability to do this says a lot about his character.

"4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way...." (1:4-5a)

He begins by thanking God for the grace, that is, the totally free and unmerited favor that God has extended to these once-pagan people. He has saved them. Notice that the grace is found "in" (Greek en) Christ Jesus. This "in him" carries into verse 2 as well. The Greek preposition en ("in") has a wide variety of meanings, depending upon the context. Here it denotes, "under the control of, under the influence of, in close association with."7 Sometimes believers would just as soon get God's blessings as a stand-alone gift, with no strings attached. But this gift of grace is only found "in close association with" Christ Jesus. We can't have the gift outside of the presence of the Giver in our lives.

Now Paul delineates just how this grace is manifesting itself in the Corinthians' lives.

"5 For in him you have been enriched in every way--in all your speaking and in all your knowledge -- 6 because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." (1:5-7)

They have been "enriched in every way." The verb is ploutizō. In secular contexts it means "to make wealthy." Figuratively, as it is used here, it means "to cause to abound in something, make rich" with spiritual blessings.8 Have you ever stopped to thank God for the richness that he has given you, to "count your blessings, name them one by one"? We often tend to underestimate or be modest about God's blessings -- or even take them for granted. But developed by use, these blessings of God are exceedingly rich and powerful.

Paul thanks God for all their "speaking," logos, "word, utterance." Here it probably refers to every kind of "spiritual utterance" that are mentioned among the gifts of the Spirit in chapters 12 to 14 -- tongues, prophecy, a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, etc.9 The church had been abusing speaking in tongues (chapter 14).

Then Paul thanks God for the Corinthians' "knowledge," gnosis, "comprehension or intellectual grasp of something," then "the content of what is known."10 After sitting under Paul's ministry for 18 months they possessed a great deal of understanding of God's revelation. And they received "revelations" by the Spirit in their meetings (14:26). Yet, their knowledge tended to engender pride and a sense of superiority in them, rather than awe and humility (8:1-2).

Fee observes that Paul focuses on two terms -- utterance and knowledge -- that are tokens of their spirituality that the Corinthians are perhaps too self-confident in. Indeed, as true gifts of the Spirit, utterances and knowledge are wonderful! But when operated in the flesh, they can cause dissension.11 Nevertheless, in 1:6 Paul says that the Corinthians' utterances and knowledge are evidence that God has confirmed Paul's preaching by giving them these gifts.12

"You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." (1:7)

In the operation of spiritual gifts (charisma), the Corinthian church is second to none. Notice that these gifts are not given permanently (as we'll see later in 13:8-10), but during the interim period until Christ returns, after which spiritual gifts will no longer be needed. The attitude Paul encourages is to "eagerly await"13 Christ's coming.

Q2. (1 Corinthians 1:4-7) How often do you thank God for the blessings of those who don't like you, or of your actual enemies? What does it say about Paul that he thanks God for the gifts of those who are at odds with him? What specifically does he thank God for about the Corinthian believers?

Assurance of God's Care (1:8-9)

This section concludes with a word of assurance about God's help for us so we'll be ready for his coming.

"8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful." (1:8-9)

Paul describes four ways in which God keeps us in Christ for that Day.

1. Strength. God will strengthen us to the end of our lives or to the end of the age, whichever comes first. The verb is bebaioō (which we saw in verse 6). Here it means, "to make a person firm in commitment, establish, strengthen."14 This strengthening, of course, requires us to take advantage of the various means of grace that God provides -- prayer, Scripture, fellowship, surrender, etc. Are you allowing God to strengthen you?

2. Forgiveness. The purpose of the strengthening is so that we will be "blameless" on the day when Christ returns. The word is anenklētos, "that cannot be called to account, unreprovable, unaccused."15 For us to be blameless is the same as to be justified, that is, declared righteous by God. And this requires faith in his forgiveness. You may sin, but the antidote isn't to beat yourself up over it. Instead, confess your sin, receive his forgiveness, and move forward (1 John 1:9). We don't deserve blamelessness, but it is God's gift to us. Hallelujah!

3. Faithfulness. "Great is thy faithfulness, O God our Father...."16 That means he is pistos, "worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust/faith."17

"Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22-23)

"If we are faithless, he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself." (2 Timothy 2:13)

4. Fellowship. We have been "called into fellowship" with Jesus, God's own Son. The word is koinōnia, "close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship." The word is also used to describe "participation, sharing" that goes on in a partnership.18 Can you imagine actual fellowship with Jesus himself? That's God's precious gift to us. Do we really take advantage of this privilege?

Sadly, some Christians live without assurance of their salvation. When asked if they'll go to heaven, they answer, "I hope so." The assurance we're given here is much stronger than "hope so." It guarantees God's gifts to us to help us stand in him. We can know we're saved. Praise the Lord!

Q3. (1 Corinthians 1:8-9) What gifts does God give us to ensure that we'll continue in faith until the end? Why does each require our active participation to receive its full benefits? Which do you need to enter into more?

Divisions in the Church (1:10-17)

Now Paul leaves the introductory material and launches into the meat of the letter. The first issue involves divisions. Notice his authoritative tone in verse 10.

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought." (1:10)

This is effectively an apostolic command,19 since Paul backs up his admonishment with the authority of "the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." He admonishes them to "agree with one another." "Agree" (NIV), "be in agreement" (NRSV) is literally, "speak the same thing" (KJV). Paul isn't talking about cloning of opinions with assembly-line precision, but the lack of dissension -- "that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought." The Greek word suggests a tune-up, an adjustment that restores the church to its proper condition.20 He calls for a coming together in both "mind and thought" (NIV) or "same mind and same purpose" (NRSV).21

Instead of a united congregation the Corinthian church has glaring divisions. The word is schisma (from which we get our word "schism"), which basically means "tear, crack,"22 Paul's information, he says, comes from some people in the household of Chloe, presumably a Christian woman. They report "quarrels" (NIV, NRSV) or "contentions" (KJV), Greek eris, "engagement in rivalry, especially with reference to positions taken in a matter, strife, discord, contention."23 Schism is ugly and sinful!

"One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ.'" (1:12)

According to Church tradition, Paul was not a beautiful man. One rather late account describes him as:

"a man small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well-built, with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace."24

In contrast, some Corinthians had heard the preaching of Apollos, a native of the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, described as:

"a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures ... [who] spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately." (Acts 18:24-25)

Then there was Peter (or Cephas, his Aramaic name), the leader of the original Twelve, whom some had heard -- and preferred to Paul's style. The purists, of course, were proud that they followed only Christ.

Things haven't changed much in 2,000 years. A half century ago people fought about denominations. Now they fight about which television pastor they prefer. You can even find broadcasts and blogs which catalog each of the errors of the Christian personalities the expert doesn't like.

But what if we have honest disagreements with other Christians? A 17th century bishop25 put it well:

"Unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things."

Some people are just plain disagreeable, faultfinding, and proud. Others are loving, peacemaking, and seeking common ground. Of course, we must stand for the fundamentals of our faith, but not allow divisions about minor, disputed points such as the order of events at the End Times, the supposed cessation of certain gifts of the Spirit, etc.

My own tradition takes a kind of perverse pride in being opinionated. They often brag, "Where there are two Baptists there are three opinions! Hah, hah!" I saw a list of 62 different Baptist denominations in North America alone! Schism follows opinionated pride. Diverse opinions should not be a source of pride but of shame!

We must agree to disagree on the minor points, but unite around Jesus Christ our common Lord. As Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers:

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:2-6)

Q4. (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)What kind of divisions do you see in your congregation or in the Christian community in your area? What is the cause of the divisions in Corinth? What is the cause of divisions today? How do we obey the command to "agree with one another" (1:10)?

Focusing on the Gospel (1:14-17a)

To show the foolishness of divisions, Paul asks rhetorically,

"Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?" (1:13)

In other words, there are no such divisions in Christ. And none of these leaders is worth fighting about. None of them died to bring you salvation. None of their names was used in your baptism. This leads Paul into an aside about just whom he had baptized.

"I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius,
so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.
(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) (1:14-16)

With the mention of baptism, Paul now leaves his admonishment about their divisions, but he will come back to it in 3:1-23 and 4:1-7. Paul concludes this aside about baptism by asserting:

"For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." (1:17)

Christ did not send him to baptize -- which I take to mean, to surround himself with a group of personally-baptized loyal disciples that follow his every whim. (Of course, baptizing disciples is part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.)

Paul explains his basic commission, his apostolate, if you will, since "send" in verse 17 is apostellō, "to dispatch someone for the achievement of some objective, send away/out."26 He is to "preach the gospel"27 -- that is, to declare the good news to those who don't know it. He seeks to point the lost to Christ, not to quibble about personal preferences and ministry styles.

He concludes this section by describing his preaching -- "not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (1:17b). As we'll see in Lesson 2 (where this idea is expounded) Paul didn't declare this message with classic Greek rhetorical style that was popular in Corinth, but focused on the message of the cross -- Jesus Christ died for our sins!

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

We've begun our study of 1 Corinthians, a strong letter to a church needing strong medicine. My prayer is that Paul's words through the Holy Spirit will take hold of you and form your understanding of what Christ's church should be like.


Lord, thank you for your Word. And thank you for the opportunity we have to study it together. We ask you to help us with the divisions we see in our congregations or between the churches in our communities. Destroy the barriers to fellowship, we pray, and let Christ alone be glorified. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 1:8)

"Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." (1 Corinthians 1:10)


4. Sosthenes, however, was a common name in Greek papyri and inscriptions so it is possible that this is another Sosthenes (W. H. Gloer, "Sosthenes," ISBE 4:587).

5. Hagiazō, BDAG 9, 1 and 2.

6. Hagios, BDAG 11, 2dβ.

7. En, BDAG 327, 4c.

8. Ploutizō, BDAG 832, 2.

9. So Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 39.

10. Gnosis, BDAG 204, 1 and 2.

11. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 40.

12. "Confirmed" is bebaioō, "to put something beyond doubt, confirm, establish" (BDAG 173, 1).

13. Apekdechomai, "await eagerly" (BDAG 100). "Assiduously and patiently to wait for." (Thayer, p. 56).

14. Bebaioō, BDAG 173, 2. The noun bebaios means "firm, steadfast, steady, reliable, certain" (TDNT 1:103).

15. Anenklētos, BDAG 76; Thayer, p. 44.

16. This is the first line of the hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," by Thomas O. Chisolm (1923).

17. Pistos, BDAG 820, 1b.

18. Koinōnia, BDAG 554, 1 and 4.

19. "Appeal" (NIV, NRSV), "beseech" (KJV) is parakaleō, "to urge strongly, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage" (BDAG 765, 2). Thayer (p. 482) sees it stronger, as "to admonish, exhort."

20. "United" (NIV, NRSV), "joined together" (KJV) is katartizō, "to cause to be in a condition to function well, put in order, restore ... put into proper condition ... be adjusted." (BDAG 526, 1b).

21. Nous is "way of thinking, mind, attitude," as the sum total of the whole mental and moral state of being, specifically here "a Christian attitude or way of thinking" (BDAG 680, 2b). "Thought" (NIV), "purpose" (NRSV), "judgment" (KJV) is gnōmē, is "that which is purposed or intended, purpose, intention, mind, mind-set" (BDAG 202, 1).

22. The basic idea of schisma means "tear or crack." Figuratively, it refers to "the condition of being divided because of conflicting aims or objectives, division, dissension, schism" (BDAG 982, 2).

23. Eris, BDAG 392.

24. The Acts of Paul and Thecla 1:4-7. This was written prior to 190 AD, but may have no real historical value.

25. A Wikipedia article notes that the phrase is often misattributed to St. Augustine, but was first used by Archbishop of Split (Spalato) Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624) in book 4, chapter 8 (p. 676 of the first volume) of his De republica ecclesiastica libri X (London, 1617). Richard Baxter made it popular in the English speaking world. It is the motto of a number of Christian groups -- the Moravians, Evangelical Presbyterians, Christian churches, and others.

26. Apostellō, BDAG 120, 1bγ.

27. The verb is euangelizō, basically, "bring good news, announce good news," here specifically, "proclaim the divine message of salvation, proclaim the gospel" (BDAG 402, 2aδ).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text