The first letter to the Corinthians was written around 55 AD by Paul while he was in Ephesus on his third missionary trip. There were possibly four letters: the “previous” letter (see 1 Cor. 5:9), 1 Corinthians, the “severe” letter (see 2 Cor. 2:4 and 7:8–9), and 2 Corinthians. But it is also possible that the two we have include the other two.
- 1:1–9 Greetings
- 1:10–13a Misconceptions about leaders
- 1:13b–2:16 Misconceptions about salvation
- 3:1–4 Immaturity and worldliness
- 3:5–23 The temple of God
- 4:1–21 The servants of God
- Christian Living
- 5:1–13 Purity and discipline
- 6:1–8 Legal disputes among believers
- 6:9–20 No license to sin
- Domestic Issues
- 7:1–9 Marriage decisions and rights
- 7:10–16 Divorce
- 7:17–24 The relative unimportance of social constructs
- 7:25–40 The unmarried
- Freedom, rights, and consideration
- A 8:1–3 Love vs. knowledge and rights
- –B 8:4–8 Food and sacrifices
- –– C 8:9–13 Stumbling blocks
- ––– X 9:1–27 Deferring rights out of love
- Xa 9:1–18 Paul’s self-defense as an apostle
- Xb 9:19–27 Evangelistic strategies
- –– C’ 10:1–14 Stumbling blocks
- – B’ 10:15–22 Food and sacrifices
- A’ 10:23–11:1 Love vs. knowledge and rights
- Symbolism and propriety in the Congregation
- A 11:2 Keeping the right traditions
- – B 11:3 Origins
- –– X 11:4–10 Head coverings
- – B’ 11:11-15 Origins
- A’ 11:16 Not keeping the wrong traditions
- The Community of Believers
- 11:17–34 Meeting and eating
- 12:1–31 The Holy Spirit and the Body
- 13:1–13 The greatest quality
- 14:1–25 The greatest gift
- 14:26–40 Order in the meetings
- The Gospel
- 15:1–10 Evidence for the Gospel
- 15:11–49 Implications of the Gospel
- 15:11–19 Resurrection
- 15:20–28 Death and life
- 15:29–34 Immersion (baptism)
- 15:35–49 Old and new bodies
- 15:50–58 Our ultimate hope
- 16:1–9 Believers helping each other
- 16:10–18 Personal recommendations
- 16:19–24 Greetings
In spite of the criticisms to follow, Paul begins with the positive. This letter is to the saved, which is an important thing to keep in mind. In spite of their faults, the Corinthian believers were considered holy by simple virtue of their belonging to the Anointed. Our holiness does not depend on us at all, but on the finished work of Jesus. Once we are saved, there is no argument to be made about dividing believers into “holy” and “not holy”. Mature and immature perhaps, but not sanctified and unsanctified.
Notice also that these people eagerly wait for Jesus to be revealed. A person who has been made holy by faith in Jesus will look forward to seeing him face to face. Yet some today seem indifferent, or even doubt that Jesus will actually return at all. Sidetracked and backslidden as the Corinthians may have been, they at least believed that Jesus would someday return for them. And our guarantee of salvation is found in Jesus, not in us.
The community of believers in Corinth was splintered into many factions. Paul is apparently responding to a report from the followers of Chloe, who is listed as a leader just as Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Cephas) are. There is nothing expressed or implied about any “household”1 or that she was merely the hostess. And had she been a man, no one would question whether she was a leader of the church meeting there. Paul will now deal with the causes of these divisions and explain why they are wrong.
1:10–13a Misconceptions about leaders
Just as the ancient Israelis demanded a human king to follow, the people here were lining up behind various leaders. They were treating leaders like the world does and forming cliques, apparently around the ritual of water immersion. But Paul will now remind them of what the Gospel is and how each person relates to others.
1:13b–2:16 Misconceptions about salvation
Immersion in water is downplayed and separated from the Gospel. Paul says the Anointed did not send him to immerse, while in the Great Commission Jesus commanded his disciples to do exactly that. But the Great Commission, although after the Cross, was before Pentecost, and thus before the church age, and also before the revealing of “the secret” to Paul (Colossians 1:26). So it is technically possible that Jesus’ command is for the Jews only. Paul did immerse the Philippian jailer (Acts 16), who was not a Jew. But water immersion was a common practice in many parts of the world at that time, and signified a person’s complete reversal of belief or affiliation with a particular group. So it would seem that Paul neither ordered nor condemned it; though Paul was himself a Jew, he was not sent to immerse. It does not appear to have been a central or primary issue.
Next Paul states that the worldly “wisdom” which rejects the simple Gospel is made to look foolish. It is “this ridiculous proclamation”2 that God chose to save us, not high philosophy. Such emphasis on what makes sense to carnal minds takes away the power of the cross and gives glory to people instead of to God. Yet this problem has always plagued the community of believers. Paul further develops this point in appealing to what the Corinthians had formerly been. They were not saved by high-sounding arguments but by the power of the simple Gospel. Educated as Paul was, he did not use his human credentials to win people over. Yet wisdom is used for those who have already been saved and who have shown a desire to grow spiritually.
Paul defines the wisdom he’s been talking about as not philosophy but the “secret” of the Gospel revealed. He explains that God hid the plan of salvation from everyone so that Jesus would be crucified for our sins, to fulfill prophecy and seal our redemption. This is the secret, the wisdom of God, which Paul was given to reveal. He then points out that it is God’s Spirit that reveals mysteries and wisdom. This is most definitely not, as some teach, saying that lost people cannot understand the Gospel message. They teach that God has to “regenerate” them first and use this passage as a proof text. But the context supports no such thing. It only says that the “soulish” (Gk. psukikos ) cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. There is no justification for interpreting “soulish” as necessarily “unsaved”, especially given the context. Instead, Paul is referring to maturity in the faith, per verse 6. This will be further supported in the following section.
3:1–4 Immaturity and worldliness
After defining spiritual maturity, Paul points out the Corinthians’ lack of it. They, although definitely saved, have not grown to maturity but remain as infants. They are the ones who cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are worldly, acting like the unsaved. The same wording (soulish and spiritual) is used for them as was used for the preceding discussion of the mature and immature in general.
3:5–23 The temple of God
Then Paul dismantles the pedestals the people had erected for various leaders. The people were trying to do what the vast majority of “churchians” have done since the apostles died: construct a hierarchy, a class distinction between clergy and laity. Yes, these leaders were their foundation and source, but that is all. They were simply doing their jobs. Though Paul laid the foundation, he himself was not that foundation, but Jesus. In other words, he presented the Gospel to them. Now, the people were to build on that foundational truth.
But Paul cautions them on the care with which they must build. Using the illustration of a building set on fire, he tells them that what they do with this Gospel will be tested for its worth and strength and quality. These, Paul explains in vs. 13, are people’s works or deeds. Vs. 14 tells us of the “pay” the builders will receive as a result of the testing. Clearly, this all is indicative of earned wages, not received gifts. A sharp distinction must be made between the two. Notice again that Paul is talking to and about saved people, as shown in vs. 15. To experience loss is not the loss of salvation, but the loss of wages or rewards.
Referring back to his earlier discussion of worldly wisdom, Paul relates it to the Corinthians’ worldliness and rebukes them again for their immaturity. They, like us, needed to keep things in proper order between God and people, and not to put people between others and God. Having exposed the root of the problems the Corinthian church was experiencing, Paul is now ready to deal with specific “branches”.
4:1–21 The servants of God
After reminding the Corinthians not to put people on pedestals, Paul gets to the matter of judgmentalism and the presumptuous false apostles. He begins by addressing the problem of their jumping to conclusions before knowing both sides of the dispute.
But then Paul goes into a sarcastic rant about their self-sufficiency and superiority to him. He then holds up as proof of his authority and sincerity the price he and Apollos have paid for being true apostles, and how they have stood up in the face of persecution and hardship. Yet Paul’s motive is not to embarrass them, but to warn them. He appeals to them as a father to his wayward children, and urges them to follow in his footsteps.
The Corinthians had become arrogant, and Paul challenges them to back up their words with actions. He would soon come to them personally and face his accusers, to see if they can repeat their charges to his face. But he wants to do more than talk; he will see whether these people have any real spiritual power. He gives them a choice in the meantime: clean up your act or prepare for the consequences.
5:1–6:20 Christian Living
Now Paul turns to deal with specific moral lapses, some of which were even worse than what the lost would tolerate.
5:1–13 Purity and discipline
In their worldliness and arrogance, the Corinthians had sunk lower than the surrounding heathen. There was incest in the Congregation, and the people were proud. Paul instructs them to hand the man over to Satan, “for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved”. Notice that this was apparently a monogamous, heterosexual, loving couple. The modern argument that love, commitment, and faithfulness can excuse sin is thus refuted (e.g., no one can argue that a homosexual couple should not be expelled if they are loving and faithful). And the backslidden, immature character of the ones throwing out such a person refutes the modern argument that no one can ever be disfellowshiped since we are all sinners.
But what does it mean to expel someone for the purpose of “punishing the flesh”? Many translations render the Greek word sarkos (flesh) as “the sinful nature”, but this presumes that “flesh” is a metaphor for an old, dead, spiritual nature believers still retain. Yet the immediate context is clear that the sin being dealt with is very much about the physical body. Elsewhere Paul speaks of sexual sin as “against your own body” (6:18) and many passages relate other sins to the body as well (Rom. 6:6,12, 8:10,13). No one disputes the fact that the saved are continually battling sin; Paul lamented extensively about this very thing in Romans 7, describing it as a battle against “this body of death”. Yet none of this proves that “flesh” means we have two spirits within us, not counting the Holy Spirit. Instead, it simply refers to the cravings of our mortal bodies, and as sentient beings we choose daily whether or not to indulge those cravings.
But this is certainly not Gnosticism, such that the body should be treated with either extreme physical deprivation or extreme indulgence, depending on the sect. Some of them say that because the flesh is inherently evil, we should punish it and treat it harshly, while others of them say we should not care what we do with it. Either way, they seem to agree that Jesus could not have come “in the flesh” because of it, which is heresy. Yet mortal though the flesh is, with its continual cravings and pull toward sin, Jesus never gave in to it. He was tempted in every way just as we are, yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15). Satan appealed to Jesus’ physical hunger among other things, a need of the flesh. So while physical bodies pull us toward sin, we are not obligated to let them rule over us (Rom. 6:12).
So what Paul intends is for this separation to motivate the sinner to take control of his flesh and stop allowing it to rule. This will “save” his spirit. Is this to be understood as salvation in the sense of the man being “born again” – again? No, and the context tells us why. Not all instances of saving have to do with being saved from hell. Didn’t Paul just finish illustrating how our deeds will be judged? And this sinner was to be put out of the fellowship, not put out of the Body. Sin among believers can be contagious, so Paul has the man quarantined to protect the other believers. We’ll see in his next letter further evidence that the man was not lost but separated, and eventually restored to fellowship.
So the key difference between the Gnostic view of the flesh and the Biblical view is what we do about it. The Gnostics erroneously thought to try either harsh treatment of the body (Col. 2:23) or indulgence in evil, but we are commanded to resist sin and not let our flesh have its way with us. Only Jesus ever succeeded, but we are obligated to try. This struggle gives us strength and is one way in which we are forged and purified by God.
Paul also distinguishes between how we deal with believers and unbelievers. Avoiding sin is simply not possible in the world; how else would we permeate the culture as “salt and light”? Instead, Paul clarifies that to not associate with immoral people only refers to within the fellowship of believers. The key here is if they claim to be fellow believers yet indulge in sin. We are not to associate with them in any way. It is inside the fellowship that we must judge, even to the point of throwing people out.
6:1–8 Legal disputes among believers
Now Paul turns to the matter of internal disputes. The Corinthians were suing each other. Paul reminds them that as people who in the coming age would judge the world and also judge angels, they should surely be able to settle trivial matters among themselves. Instead, they were going to secular courts and thereby bringing shame on the fellowship. And the root of the problem was the same as the one behind their bickering about leaders: they were worldly and immature. It would be better to just take being wronged than to go to unbelievers for judgments.
6:9–20 No license to sin
Speaking of doing wrong, Paul reminds them that people who practice such things as a way of life will not inherit the kingdom of God. But does this refer to salvation of the soul or to loss of rewards? The immediate context is not decisive, but we can get some help from Colossians 2:20 which says “Since you died with the Anointed to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules...?” In other words, the Corinthians were saved but were acting like they weren’t, like they did before being saved.
So Paul is not warning them they could lose their salvation, but reprimanding them for acting like unbelievers. Notice he points out that “that is what some of you were”. They were backsliding into their former lifestyles. But Paul reminds them that they had been “washed… sanctified… justified in the name of Master Jesus the Anointed”. And notice that homosexuality is listed as being something “some of you were, but… .” Here we have Biblical proof that it is not an inherited trait but a sinful lifestyle, and one that the blood of Jesus can make clean. People can no more justify homosexuality for Christians than they can justify greed or drunkenness or slander or swindling. By the same token, the swindlers and greedy cannot look down their noses at homosexuals.
Evidently the Corinthians were flaunting their rights and freedoms, not just backsliding. They were proud of their sin and wanted everyone to know. The wording in vs. 13 hints at the Gnostic indulgence idea discussed earlier, but Paul counters with how God views the body as opposed to the Gnostic view. He goes further to reveal that our bodies are “members of the Anointed himself”, and that “you are not your own; you were bought at a steep price”.
We see in this section the word “flesh” again, and this time in reference to Genesis. Many today have the distorted notion that marriage unites people’s spirits, but it doesn’t say that. It says “the two become one flesh”. And it is this principle that Paul appeals to as the reason for sexual purity and faithfulness to one’s spouse. Our spirits unite with God, but our bodies unite with each one we are intimate with. This effectively throws the Corinthians’ indulgence theory into the trash.
Notice also that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit”. We have no need of external constructed buildings or shrines or holy places. Jesus said that “where two or three come together on my account, there I am with them” (Mt. 18:20). This means meeting with other believers just because we are believers, for spiritual purposes. Paul has more to say about such meetings elsewhere.
7:1–40 Domestic Issues
Marriage and divorce have always been controversial topics, but we must be careful to understand the context. For example, when Jesus was asked about divorce (Mt. 19:3), there was much more to the question than meets the eye. About the time of Jesus’ birth, a new type of divorce called the Any Cause divorce was invented.3 The phrase in Deuteronomy originally only meant unfaithfulness, but a legal loophole was created by dividing it up into two separate grounds for divorce: unfaithfulness and “a cause”.
A rabbi called Hillel argued: why did God use the phrase “cause of sexual immorality” when he could merely have said “sexual immorality”? The word “cause” must refer to another separate ground for divorce he decided meant “Any Cause”. But the disciples of Shammai disagreed with this reasoning and said the whole phrase “a cause of sexual immorality” meant exactly what it said: “Sexual Immorality”. (And of course, if God had meant “any cause”, then the other stipulations were redundant too.)
So what Jesus was being asked was very specific: was the Any Cause divorce interpretation legitimate? His answer was clearly No. But at the same time, neither was Jesus making a statement that meant divorce had no legitimate grounds except for marital unfaithfulness. If we study the entirety of the Law, we see that it also included various forms of neglect as well. But remember that this all pertains to Israel; Paul will give more details about this for Christians.
7:1–9 Marriage decisions and rights
Paul now tries to clarify statements he had made earlier which the Corinthians had apparently misunderstood. They had the notion that Paul considered all sex bad. So he explains that what he meant was that marriage puts extra burdens on people that distract them from spiritual things. Yet at the same time, most people cannot accept singleness as Paul could, a condition he called a “gift”. He explains that both husbands and wives must be considerate of each other’s needs and not force abstinence on each other.
Paul is not using the singular here as we might today, such as in saying, “A child is not an adult until the age of 21.” Remember that he prefaced this section with the statement that he is addressing questions the Corinthians had asked (7:1), and there are other instances in Paul’s writings where he suddenly switches from the plural to the singular which indicates specific individuals. Here, Paul’s instructions seem too specific to be taken generically; they include no general statements or cover any of the possible situations that can cause marital discord. Note the statements in the preceding sentence about those who “cannot control themselves”, and the preceding paragraph, which talks about “each man” and “each woman”; there is no such grammar for this married couple. And the next paragraph is directed “to the rest”, giving additional weight to his not having addressed all married couples here.
The statement “and this is not from me but from the Master” does not indicate whether what Paul is about to say is divinely inspired or not; it simply means he had a direct command from Jesus about it. No one would insist that all the rest of the Bible was dictated verbatim by God, but would agree that the Holy Spirit prompted His words to be written through the writer’s own personality. So when Paul says he is giving a command from the Master, he was given that command expressly. Otherwise, he simply wrote as he was inspired.
Look closely at vs. 15: there is an important principle given here, which Paul offers as a kind of catch-all for the gray areas. The most important thing in marriage is to live in peace. People tend to take Paul’s meaning here backwards. He’s not saying “Stick with it in the hope you will save your spouse”; but “Don’t keep beating a dead horse”. In other words, the emphasis is on the fact that we don’t know whether the spouse will ever be saved; we can’t make it happen. He wants people to show mercy to unbelievers who want to leave, and not live in discord just in case the spouse might someday be saved.
7:17–24 The relative unimportance of social constructs
Believers shouldn’t be overly concerned about their past or present situation in life, unless it clearly violates the Christian principles listed earlier (“that is what some of you were”). God never commanded Christians to live in deprivation or isolation from the world. How else would we be “salt and light”?
7:25–40 The unmarried
Some take Paul’s statements in vs. 25–35 as being about specific and strict rules on marriage— in spite of what he just finished saying. They also try to use it to justify the custom of parents choosing spouses for their children, as if it were an eternal command. Remember that these letters weren’t written in a vacuum. Paul is writing to a particular group of people in a particular cultural setting, a fact that will be even more significant later on the topic of women in the church. This section is simply an elaboration on the earlier statements about the pressures married people face and is really very simple. Paul repeats that people should carefully consider whether to get married, and if they decide to do so, they should follow his guidelines, as he says in vs. 35.
In vs. 36–40 Paul appears to be addressing specific situations there in Corinth, the first being a man who isn’t sure whether he should marry, and the second being a woman whose husband is apparently near death. She needed to know what she should do in that case, especially if she were Jewish and would otherwise be obligated to marry a brother of her husband in order to produce heirs. Paul says that Christian women are not obligated to honor this law, especially if it would mean having to marry an unbeliever.
8:1–11:1 Freedom, rights, and consideration
At this point Paul presents his defense concerning his rights as an apostle. He will build up from a question about food offered to idols to the broader question of how and when Christians should exercise their rights, then back to the original question in light of his argument.
A 8:1–3 Love vs. knowledge and rights
To preface what he is about to say, Paul gives the overarching principle that the humility of love is superior to the conceit of knowledge. What he tells them about meat offered to idols is to be understood in that light.
B 8:4–8 Food and sacrifices
Although everything really comes from God, and what we eat is irrelevant to our spirits, many people said to have a “weak conscience” still think of certain foods being off limits. In spite of our right as believers to eat anything we choose, we need to be considerate of those with a weak conscience when it comes to matters like this that have no bearing on spiritual things. This same principle on how to handle “disputable matters” is covered in more detail in Romans 14.
C 8:9–13 Stumbling blocks
The principle of love will prevent us from hurting others in exercising our rights. Though the “strong” may know that there is nothing wrong with eating such meat, it becomes wrong when flaunted in front of those who might be emboldened to violate their consciences. So the strong must defer to the weak in these cases. Paul has established this principle not only to answer a question put to him, but also in support of the defense he is about to make concerning his being an apostle.
X 9:1–27 Deferring rights out of love
Xa 9:1–18 Paul’s self-defense as an apostle
Now arriving at the crux of his presentation, Paul expresses his indignation against the false apostles who are criticizing him and his authority. He demands to know why he and Apollos are not allowed the same rights as other believers, such as bringing their spouses along or being financially supported in their journeys. Regarding pay, he appeals to the Law and to his being the Corinthians’ spiritual “father”. Yet although he proves his right to support and respect, he has laid those aside just to keep the people from being burdened.
Xb 9:19–27 Evangelistic strategies
Paul’s point is all about lack of obligation. He is not constrained by any situation, leaving him free to take any needed angle for the purpose of convincing people to accept the Gospel of salvation. It is important to point this out because many take his words to be an acceptance of all religions, known as ecumenism. But nothing could be farther from the truth; Paul was very clear on the need to be intolerant of any compromise of the Gospel. It is Paul who is winning them over to salvation, not them winning him over to their religions.
But even in this, we must not forget basic principles of salvation. This “prize” Paul is referring to is not salvation but reward, as indicated by his reference to qualification. Since salvation is a gift it cannot be earned and we cannot qualify for it. So since Paul is talking about something to qualify for, it must be something other than salvation. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to do more than sit on their salvation, but to strain for the goal by deferring when possible, by being considerate, and by looking for the good of others.
C’ 10:1–14 Stumbling blocks
The first five verses are a backdrop to the point Paul will make next. He just finished discussing the need to “run to win” and the problem of false apostles. Now he is about to issue a warning from history. But note that while it is said that “all of them were immersed into Moses”, they were never literally dunked in water. In fact, God made a point of not allowing it! They were kept dry crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. So any attempt to tie this passage into some requirement for being immersed in water (baptized) is erroneous. The Israelis were fully immersed into all this because they experienced it, and it also had spiritual symbolic meaning.
Now Paul plainly states that what happened to Israel in the past was to serve as a warning, and then he lists specific sins including testing the Anointed or even grumbling against him. We must be careful not to get overconfident in our spirituality or standing among other believers. We are always being tempted, but if we just keep our eyes open for the way of escape God provides, we can avoid making the same mistakes as the Israelis.
B’ 10:15–22 Food and sacrifices
Back in chapter 8 Paul brought up the matter of food offered to idols, and he pointed out the need for being considerate of those with a weaker conscience. But now he approaches the same subject from another angle: that it is not only individuals we need to consider, but also society. For the sake of their reputation among the lost, Paul recommends that all the believers stay clear of anything that might give society the impression that they have anything to do with idols. He contrasts the food offered to them with the bread and wine used to remember the Master.
It’s important to note that this is not an establishing of the ritual known as “communion” either, or calling this ritual a “sacrifice” per the Roman Catholic definition. Paul is simply wanting to make a distinction between idol worship and the Christian gatherings, and he’s saying it to the Corinthian believers. He already made it clear that this is all a matter of conscience, and he will go over it again in the following verses.
Some say Paul is contradicting himself here. Before, he said that idols are nothing (repeated here also), such that eating food that had been offered to them in sacrifice is not wrong in itself. But now he says “You cannot eat at the table of the Master and of demons”. Note first of all that Paul just finished talking about “partnership” (the accurate meaning of koinonia, typically translated “communion”), that is, immersion. So if the eating of food offered to idols is done as part of a ceremony or ritual, that would make it wrong. In other words, to eat such meat along with those who are considering it a sacrifice is wrong, but to eat it when simply sold to anyone in the marketplace is not.
A’ 10:23–11:1 Love vs. knowledge and rights
We see it all tied together in 10:31: whatever you do, do it to glorify God. The goal is to get people saved and spiritually matured, not to flaunt our freedom or wave our strong faith in the faces of the weak. This is the point we need to keep in mind as we read all of this. Those who scour these verses for black-and-white rules search in vain. Those who would use these verses as clubs with which to beat down other believers completely miss the intent of the writings.
Just as it would be wrong for an individual to eat meat sacrificed to idols if the person serving it warned them, it would also be wrong for the Christian community to appear to participate in the worship of idols in the eyes of society. We must be considerate of their weak consciences and remember the greater goal of winning them to the Gospel. So in both cases (chapters 8 and 10), Paul is saying that we should not go out of our way to find out where the meat came from, but if anyone has a problem with our eating it, we must abstain. This principle would be the same no matter what the topic or time of history, but we can use this as a guideline. Glorify God instead of self. This has been Paul’s example, and the the Christian community would do well to follow it.
11:2–16 Symbolism and propriety in the Congregation
This was an important issue to discuss because of what a head covering symbolized at the time. A Jewish man was to cover his head as a sign of guilt before God, but Jesus took that guilt away for his followers. So for a Christian man to cover his head in worship would be insulting to the sacrifice of Jesus. But for a Christian woman to uncover her head would be a sign of loose morals. What should she do then, especially if her husband were an unbeliever? If she covers she shames Jesus but if she doesn’t she shames her husband. This is the backdrop to what Paul will advise.
A 11:2 Keeping the right traditions
Paul begins with the positive: the Corinthians had been following traditions he had given them. But they had a question about head coverings that needed to be clarified.
B 11:3 Origins
The Greek word for “head”, kephale, is translated as “head” if it clearly refers to a literal physical head, but as “source” or “head” in quotation marks if the context seems to indicate metaphorical use. In the culture of Paul’s day, it was believed that the body grew out of the head, and thus that the head was the source or origin of the body. They never used “head” as a representation of rule or authority.4 Notice also the order: source of man, source of woman, source of Anointed. Adam was created first, then Eve, and then the Savior came through her “seed”. More weight is given to this interpretation when Paul writes, “Yet at the same time, the woman represents the dignity of man, because she came from man and was made for him”. If hierarchy had been intended, then certainly the order would be God, then the Anointed, then people.
Paul is known for using plays on words, and we have a prime example here which really doesn’t translate well. If we use “head” people read into it the meaning “boss” but we can get the play on words; if we use “source” people get the proper meaning of “head” but we lose the play on words. The play on words is shown by Paul’s use of head to preface the discussion of head coverings for the Christian women.
X 11:4–10 Head coverings
Although it is uncertain, I believe Paul quotes the Corinthians in vs. 4–6. They are presenting the problem the Christian women were facing, concerning the impossible position this put them in, as already mentioned. To uncover was to indicate loose morals, so they needed to know how to handle this.
Paul responds first by agreeing that men should not cover, which of course would not cause any social problem. But then he reminds them of the reason men should not cover: they represent the dignity (glory) of God. And if one who represents the dignity of another must not cover, then as the dignity of man, women must not cover either. Paul also points out the reason that woman represents man’s dignity: she came from him and was made for him. Note that he makes the statement in the context of dignity–- not of authority or hierarchy. She was not made for him to be an inferior assistant, but as the Hebrew indicates in Gen. 2:18, a “strong one facing him” (Heb. ezer kenegdo, an equal coming to one’s aid). (And neither is she somehow not made in God’s image as men; representing the dignity of man does not negate her being in the image of God.)
So as the equal of man, being of the same flesh, woman is not to cover her head. For that reason she has the authority (Gk. exousion) to decide for herself what to do. This is the first time Paul mentions authority or power or rank, and the woman has it for herself. Neither a man nor the community of believers is to tell her what to do, especially since she is the one who may suffer reprisal over this. Yet Paul also gives a second reason: “because of the Messengers” (the Greek word angelos means messenger). What does this mean?
Various theories have been proposed, such as that the angels would be moved to lust at the sight of a woman without a head covering. This is preposterous; such angels would only be moved to lust in a worship setting? And since both men and women can grow long hair (next section), why would this lead to lust? Would the good angels attending such a worship service be moved to lust at all? Clearly this proposal makes no sense at all. Instead, there are two very good possibilities.
One is that Paul mentioned believers judging angels in 1 Cor. 6:3, so he is saying that since women are not excluded from this, then surely they can be trusted to judge on the matter of whether or not to cover their own heads. Another is that it could refer to the practice at the time whereby Rome would send spies or “messengers” into various gatherings in order to report whether rebellion was being taught. Women uncovering their heads in worship would have been seen as subversive. So Paul could be saying, “The women should cover their heads anyway, just for the sake of not getting us accused of sedition.” Yet if this were the reason for covering, then surely Paul would have commanded it instead of leaving it up to the women.
B’ 11:11-15 Origins
Now back to origins or sources. After talking about dignity and chronological order, Paul reminds the people that everyone comes from God. We are not independent as believers; we are one Body with one Head. If origins or chronology were important, Paul would not have had to point out that ever since Eve, all men have come from women. He is strongly putting the notion of chronology-based hierarchy to rest.
Paul again reprimands the Corinthians for their inability to judge trivial matters, and what he says here about it is almost always translated backwards. It does not say that nature tells us long hair is bad for men but good for women. It says, “Look at nature; both men and women can grow long hair. Nature teaches only that they are the same when it comes to head coverings.”
A’ 11:16 Not keeping the wrong traditions
Finally, Paul tells them that none of the Assemblies has any such custom about the significance of head coverings. It is clearly not one of Paul’s traditions.
11:17–14:40 The Community of Believers
Now Paul turns to matters of concern only among believers, especially questions about spiritual gifts.
11:17–34 Meeting and eating
In contrast to his positive statement about their following his traditions, here Paul reprimands them for something they’re doing very badly: meeting together. He begins by addressing their common meals.
Apparently “the Master’s supper” was a full meal which included using the wine and bread as a simple way to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for them. But the people were turning it into an act of gluttony, ignoring the poor and getting drunk. (Note that this wine was indeed alcoholic.) Instead of honoring the Master, they were shaming him. Paul reminds them of the point of sharing bread and wine. This is not, as the churches have always practiced it, a prescription for ritualistic repeating of Paul’s words. There is no command for us to repeat these verses when remembering Jesus. The whole point is all about the heart, about remembrance, about honoring Jesus. Its purpose is to “proclaim the Master’s death until he comes”.
This is the meaning behind vs. 27 where it talks about people eating and drinking disrespectfully. Note that people are to examine themselves, not face an inquisition from church leaders. God dealt with those who made a mockery of the sacrifice of his Son. Some were sick and others were killed because of this flippant attitude toward God and mistreatment of the poor among them. Remember that Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) were killed for lying to the Holy Spirit. Instead, the people were to avoid God’s judgment by judging themselves, and they were to all eat together to make sure nobody went home hungry.
12:1–31 The Holy Spirit and the Body
Paul begins by stating that at the very least we can discern the spirit behind a teaching by how it views Jesus. No one who would curse Jesus could possibly be of God, and no one can honestly call Jesus The Master without having the Holy Spirit. This is more than just saying the words “Jesus is Master”, but instead indicates one’s personal conviction.
It seems most unlikely that Paul intended for these lists of spiritual gifts to be all-encompassing or technical. He seems to be picking out random, off-the-cuff ministries that can be active in the body of believers. This is indicated by his opening statement that it all comes from one Spirit, one source. More importantly, Paul gives the purpose of these spiritual gifts: to build up other believers and serve them. And we are not to say that the Spirit can only give this gift or that, to one person or another, as he will explain next.
Paul gives the analogy of the human body as a means of understanding how the various spiritual gifts fit together. He first emphasizes the fact that it is one Body, one organism, one unit. All the parts are made of the same substance and get their life from one Head. The head is of the same substance as the body though, and cannot live without it. Conversely, the body cannot live without the head. If a part is missing, the body is crippled and not whole. One part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you!”.
It all seems so obvious— until we apply it to what goes on in the typical “church”. One part does indeed say to another, “I don’t need you!”. Believers with one gift will ignore or despise those with other gifts. People will assume that only one “part” has a particular gift. The “pastor” is held up as the only one with discernment and prophecy and vision, ignoring others who may also have these gifts. Surely the Body is hopping on one leg and has one hand tied behind its back!
Paul then points out that our ideas of importance are not God’s. The parts we deem weak or unnecessary may be the most vital, and the ones we think are most important are nothing special. Paul tells us that God did this deliberately, so that no part of the Body would feel superior to another part. We are individual parts of one Body, not identical spokes in a wheel or interchangeable machine components. All parts have equal access to the Head; all are directly a part of the Body and not secondary or inferior parts. Then Paul specifically mentions some parts that apparently the Corinthians held up as special or prominent. He reminds them that the body of believers is more than its eyes, more than its hands. In fact, he will downplay those gifts assumed to be superior and show them what parts are really the most vital, the “weak” parts.
13:1–13 The greatest quality
This, the “love” chapter, is undoubtedly one of the more familiar passages of scripture in the New Testament. Paul gives a definition of real spiritual love before showing its place in the Body. It is the foundation of all the gifts. But believers seem to forget this, especially when it comes to dealing with each other. Many clamor for having their own way, for making others follow their particular “vision” or goal. But if they truly love others they will not “demand their own way”.
Ignoring the context, many take Paul’s statements about gifts that cease as some kind of doctrinal thesis. He is not saying which (if any) spiritual gifts would cease with the death of the apostles (cessationism). They argue that “that which is complete” means speaking in “tongues” is a thing of the past, by making the New Testament “that which is complete”. But this begs the question; the context simply doesn’t go anywhere near the idea of putting restrictions or time constraints on the Spirit, or identifying exactly what is meant by “that which is complete”. All he seems to be saying is that the gifts are for this life and not heaven.
He has mentioned the problem of immaturity before, and here he seems to present the spiritual gifts as things which are needed until we reach maturity. With that in mind, Paul will now get to the matter of “speaking in tongues” as compared to prophecy.
14:1–25 The greatest gift
With love as both the basis and the ultimate goal, Paul gives the purpose of the gifts: to build up the Body. This lengthy chapter begins with a discussion of “speaking in tongues”. There is disagreement among scholars over whether these “tongues” or languages are real human languages that the speaker has not learned, or the languages of angels, or possibly a “Holy Spirit” language. Whatever they are, they are of supernatural origin.
In this section, Paul stresses the importance of mental understanding as opposed to only an experience. The purpose of all the spiritual gifts is to build up the church, not to just be absorbed by individuals. Without interpretation there is no understanding, and without understanding there is no building up of the church. Self-improvement is fine but it must include other-improvement as well.
With another quick reference to the Corinthians’ lack of maturity, Paul explains that these languages are a sign for unbelievers, while prophecy is for believers. What sign is this? Possibly just to indicate to unbelievers the presence of God among the believers. It’s possible that miraculous signs of any kind are more prevalent when there is either little access to the written scriptures or when the unbelievers are spiritually blinded to the point that the words alone cannot get through. Jesus had said that “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” (Mt. 12:39), giving further weight to this. In general, miracles seem to accompany times when God is about to do something new, a change in the way he deals with mankind, or to signify an important event. So Paul is telling them that sign gifts are not of primary importance in the church, and in fact are relatively useless. Many churches today would do well to realize this.
14:26–40 Order in the meetings
In all the New Testament, very little is said about how, when, and where believers should assemble together. Along with Jesus’ statement that “you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem... true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-23), we have to conclude that the practices of churches throughout history have born little resemblance to anything found in the NT. Conspicuous by their absence are the ideas of special buildings, pulpits, altars, or a clergy class ruling over a passive laity in a perpetual parent/child relationship. Neither do we see any hint of a human or mystical “covering”, which actually usurps the place of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer.
In contrast, as we see here, the Christian gatherings were meetings where everyone participated and used their various spiritual gifts. The spiritually mature were to guide and teach the less mature, and prophets would give revelations from God. But Paul is not actually praising them here for their participation in the meetings; he is reprimanding them for the chaotic manner in which they did so. There is to be order in the meetings, but not an order born of ritual or liturgy. Both stilted ritualism and chaos are harmful extremes.
Is every pastor a prophet? Yet we treat them as though they are, frequently saying “Let us hear what message the Master has laid on the pastor’s heart for us today”. That’s prophecy. Yet these alleged prophetic messages from God are really the act of teaching and expounding the scriptures, the result of hours of preparation and research. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but we cannot call it prophecy or assume that every sermon is a revelation from God. And where do we get the idea of sermons anyway? Historically, they have more in common with the ancient Greek and Roman orators than with anything in the Bible. “Pastor” is a spiritual gift, not an office, and no one is ever designated as a perpetual speaker in the Christian gatherings.
Notice that the prophets were to take turns. (There is some question about who exactly is discerning or weighing what the prophets say. Are they other prophets only, or all the people, or any spiritually-mature person? Most translations don’t specify it, but some lean toward the others being prophets.) This assumes that there were several in the Congregation, and that their speaking was impromptu as opposed to the typical Sunday sermon with its alliterated 3-point outline. Speaking of which, there is nothing in the New Testament to specify a particular day for these meetings. Nothing is ever said about a certain day of worship being a prescribed practice for believers of all time regarding their gatherings. There is also no mention of a formal membership list, committees, trustees, etc. Those have more to do with corporations than families.
Remembering the immediate context of order in the meetings, we come to a very controversial passage beginning in vs. 34. But first note that this discussion of order is repeated at the end (vs. 39–40); the intervening discussion could be lifted out without breaking the flow. In fact, because of this, some scholars believe it was either added by later scribes or belongs at the end of chapter 14 instead of where it is. But it will be treated here as a legitimate part of Paul’s letter, and in the place it appears.
There are no quote marks in Greek, but quoted material is often ended with the word He and is typically translated as “or”, if it is translated at all. We see this word twice in verse 36, and we can tell by the preceding content that Paul is quoting someone else. As just stated, the passage starting in verse 34 and ending with 38 is clearly out of the flow of the discussion about order in the meetings. So we have good indications of both the beginning and ending of the quoted material.
Verses 34 and 35 are the words Paul is quoting. We see “the law” mentioned, yet there is no such statement about women being silent in any of the Old Testament laws; it is in fact seen in the Jewish Talmud.5 Even if there had been such a law in the Torah, this is the same Paul who wrote passionately against believers staying under the law in his letter to the Galatians. It also contradicts what Paul wrote elsewhere about women being allowed to prophesy in the meetings. Remember that Paul put forth a lot of effort fighting against the Jews who wanted Christians to submit to circumcision and other requirements of the old law, so it is highly unlikely that he would turn around and appeal to it here.
Paul strongly opposed the silencing of women in the churches. This view is also consistent with his other statements about the prophesying of women in the congregation. Some interpret Paul’s rebuttal as being aimed at an anticipated objection instead of a quote from the Corinthians. But there is nothing in the rebuttal to indicate this, no such words as “someone will object”; see 15:35 for example.
15:1–15:58 The Gospel
Paul is about to address the Corinthians’ question concerning the resurrection of the dead, but he prefaces it with a definition of the Gospel.
15:1–10 Evidence for the Gospel
He begins with a statement that some take as meaning salvation can be lost. But it can easily be understood as referring to a misplaced faith, one that was never genuine to begin with. That is why Paul repeats what he had told them earlier, the Gospel itself. Had someone already been genuinely saved, they would already know the Gospel. (And if we take Heb. 6 as saying it can be lost once but never regained, then there would be no point in repeating the Gospel for that reason either.)
Notice four critical components of the Gospel: (1)Jesus died for our sins as prophesied, (2)Jesus was buried, (3)Jesus rose again the third day as prophesied, and (4)there were credible witnesses to these things. Our faith is based upon prophecy and eye-witness account, in the death and resurrection of Jesus who paid for all sin, once and for all (Heb. 7:27). Paul himself was a witness to the risen Jesus, and in a very unique way. So the fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is well-established, and now Paul will build upon that foundation.
15:11–49 Implications of the Gospel
The Corinthians seemed to have forgotten their beginnings, their reasons for meeting together. Yet resurrection from the dead is absolutely critical to the faith.
Without there being a resurrection of the dead, not even Jesus was raised, and our faith is useless and without purpose. And all who preach the Gospel are then labeled as false witnesses. If our faith is only for this life, then Christians are to be pitied for following a false hope. These are the logical conclusions to disbelief in resurrection. So if the Corinthians had truly believed in the risen Jesus, then they had to also believe in the resurrection of the dead.
15:20–28 Death and life
Now Paul explains why we die at all: sin. It came through one person, Adam (note that Eve is never mentioned here at all). We all die because of him, and Jesus is held up as the direct opposite, the One who would bring life. That the death spoken of here must be physical is based upon the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection were physical, or we’d have to attribute spiritual death to him, which is impossible. Yet Jesus’ immortal resurrected body is the “firstfruit”, the beginning. The rest of us do not yet have our new immortal bodies but we will surely get them at the right time. And then Death itself will finally be defeated. Again, this must be physical death, because the spiritually dead will remain so forever once this life is over.
15:29–34 Immersion (baptism)
The controversial statements here are in the context of Paul’s argument for physical resurrection and how the Corinthians were not being consistent with their faith in Jesus. So it seems that Paul is addressing yet another one of those inconsistencies. Beyond that is pure speculation, and certainly not an endorsement of rituals for the dead. Paul then expresses his frustration with the Corinthians by saying, “If there’s no resurrection, then who cares about anything? Just enjoy yourselves“— followed by a rebuke and warning for them to wake up.
15:35–49 Old and new bodies
We can almost see Paul putting his head in his hands and weeping as he ponders their ignorant question, “What kind of body will the raised have?” After telling them what a stupid question this is, Paul patiently teaches them to look around at the obvious. The “planted” body is completely unlike the “raised” body, as anyone should know. Seeds are not at all what they will grow into once planted. But they must be planted in order to change; they must “die” before they can “live” again.
Paul describes the raised human body as a “spiritual body” that bears the image of Jesus (vs. 49). This new body cannot see corruption as the physical one does, and it will not have “flesh and blood”. And just as we have all shared in the corrupt flesh of Adam, so also we who believe will all share in the immortal body of Jesus.
15:50–58 Our ultimate hope
Then Paul introduces a new “secret”: not everyone will have to experience physical death! In an instant, we will be changed from the mortal to the immortal. First the bodies of the dead will be raised in immortal form, and then we who are still alive will be changed. Paul will have more to say about the timing of this glorious event in his letters to the Thessalonians. All he says here is that it will be “at the last trumpet”, but there is great controversy over exactly what that means. Whenever that happens, then the scripture will be fulfilled that the “sting of death” will be no more.
16:1–9 Believers helping each other
The Corinthians had asked Paul questions about a collection for “the Master’s people”, and he responds that they should follow what the Galatians did and set aside funds on “the first of Sabbaths”, according to how they have prospered. Many take this to be an endorsement of the Christian “tithing” and Sunday worship, but does the context support that?
No. First of all, we see that this was a specific collection for the believers in Jerusalem, not something that was practiced continually for all believers. “First of Sabbaths” refers to the day of the wave offering, which is the first day of the week after Passover and the start of marking off 7 weeks until Pentecost (see verse 8). Second, it was to be freely given, not a kind of legalistic tax. In addition, it was to be done in proportion to one’s prosperity or increase. As long as your expenses meet or exceed your income, you are not increasing. This was not a way to make some believers comfortable at others’ expense (2 Cor. 8:13). And there is no indication in the text to support Sunday worship. Nothing is said about corporate worship at all; it only speaks of individuals (“each one of you”), and no mention is made of an “offering plate” or official place to bring these gifts as they were being collected. There is no mention of any group or individual or place that could be considered the equivalent of the Old Testament “storehouse” or altar.
16:10–18 Personal recommendations
Paul orders the Corinthians to respect his emissary Timothy, who we can surmise may not have otherwise received such respect due to his youth (1 Tim. 4:12). Others are to be respected as well, and again the foundational quality of love is emphasized.
Finally, Paul sends along greetings from others, especially the group meeting in the home of Prisca and Aquila. And to guard against the threat of forgery, Paul makes sure to include a greeting in his own handwriting. Note the curse upon foes of Jesus, whom Paul hopes will return soon. We can be assured that these whom Paul would curse are those who have hardened their hearts against the Gospel.
- 1It appears that many translators presume a woman could only be in charge of her own family, so “household” is added arbitrarily. But this would mean that Paul was accepting a report from her under-age children. (See this search result for how various translations render the verse. Neither do any of the listed commentaries justify this presumption or explain how the Greek for “of Chloe” is different from the Greek for the listed male leaders. And if the messengers were her adult male slaves, this begs the question of how a woman could have authority over a man.)
- 2The Greek says “the foolishness of the proclamation”, not “the foolishness of proclaiming”. Paul is saying that it is the Gospel itself, not the method of spreading it, that is foolish to the world.
- 3D. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, IVP Books, November 30, 2006
- 4S. Bedale, The Meaning of kephale in the Pauline Epistles, Journal of Theological Studies, 5, 1951
- 5Berachot, Basics of Tznius