We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Related Content

Commentary on 1 Corinthians

Previous
Jump to: Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
Next
Text Commentary side-by-side

Prescript ( 1:1–3 )

This follows the form typical in the Pauline letters; sender, addressees, and greeting (cf. Gal 1:1–3 ). Paul mentions his apostolic calling since some in Corinth doubted this ( 9:1–2 ) and associates with himself Sosthenes, perhaps the synagogue leader mentioned in Acts 18:17 , who must have been converted after the events narrated there. In referring to the church in Corinth Paul emphasizes their purity (‘sanctified’, ‘saints’, v. 2 ), a theme which he will later employ to reinforce the boundaries between the community and outsiders and to outlaw behaviour which soils the church (e.g. 5:6–8; 6:9–11 ). He also pointedly associates them with all other Christians elsewhere (v. 3 ). He will not allow the Corinthian Christians to exalt themselves over others ( 4:7 ), to neglect their needs ( 16:1–4 ), or to develop idiosyncratic patterns of church life ( 4:17; 11:16 ).

Thanksgiving ( 1:4–9 )

Paul's letters generally begin with a thanksgiving, which places the life of the church in the context of God's activity and compliments the believers on their progress thus far. Despite the problems which this church poses, Paul appears genuinely grateful for its lively success, so long as it is attributed to ‘the grace of God’ (v. 4 ) by which they have been ‘enriched’ (v. 5 ). Later he will criticize the Corinthians for boasting in their spiritual virtuosity as if they had made themselves rich (vv. 7–8 ). Their God-given riches include every form of ‘speech’ and ‘knowledge’ (v. 5 )—topics which will recur at several points in the letter (notably 1:18–3:5; 8:1–13; 13:1–2; 14:1–40 ), where Paul's appreciation is tempered with caution about the uses of such gifts in the community. In v. 6 —which is probably best translated ‘just as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you’—Paul points forward to his discussion of the terms in which he first testified to Christ in Corinth ( 1:18–2:5 ), reminding his socially comfortable converts that all they have is based on the subversive message of Christ crucified. Their speech and knowledge are part of their enjoyment of every ‘spritiual gift’ (charisma, v. 7 ), a theme which comes to full (though again critical) expression in chs. 12–14 . Notable at the end of this section are references to the future: for all their present abundance, the Corinthians still await ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 7 ) and the judgement which will take place on ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 8 ). Throughout this letter Paul will point forward to that future, to forestall premature judgements of his own or anyone else's ministry (v. 5 ), to warn against complacency in the race still unfinished ( 9:24–7; 10:12 ), and to moderate the exaggerated claims that were being made for knowledge and other spiritual gifts ( 13:8–13 ). Their only ground for confidence can be the faithfulness of God (v. 9; cf. 10:13 ), who has called them to participate in Christ (cf. 1:30–1 ). It is only by continuing in that ‘fellowship’ with Christ that they can face the end with confidence (cf. 16:22–4 ).

Appeal for Unity and for Re-evaluation of Paul's Ministry ( 1:10–4:21 )

( 1:10–17 ) The Absurdity of Party Groups

v. 10 encapsulates the core of Paul's appeal which covers not only chs. 1–4 , but also many other parts of the letter which appeal for mutual care within the church (e.g. 6:1–8; 8:1–3; 12:12–26 ). The ‘divisions’ spoken of here do not seem to prevent the church gathering together (Rom 16:23 ), but they damage its life, preventing its maturation ( 3:1–4 ) and negating its calling to love ( 13:1–13 ). Paul is responding in the first instance to oral reports from ‘Chloe's people’ (v. 11 ), probably the slaves of one of the members of the church. The quarrels they report concern the forming of party-groups in which members of the Corinthian church line up, in quasi-political fashion, behind Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or (apparently) Christ (v. 12 ). The last grouping receives no further mention in 1 Corinthians, except in Paul's insistence that all belong to Christ ( 3:22 ). Perhaps the statement here represents a claim by some Corinthians to a more direct allegiance to Christ. Apollos is repeatedly named in the following chapters, and his followers may have been converted through him, since we know he was in Corinth after Paul ( 3:6; Acts 18:24–19:1 ). It has often been suggested that Paul's critical words about eloquence in 1:18–2:5 may be directed against admiration of Apollos' rhetorical prowess (according to Acts 18:24 he was ‘an eloquent man’). Therein may lie some truth, though Paul is careful never to criticize Apollos directly in this letter and says he has encouraged him to return to Corinth ( 16:12 ).

The Cephas party remains a matter of controversy. Had Cephas (Peter) visited Corinth, like Paul and Apollos, and thus played some role in shaping the Corinthian church? Some think that 9:5 suggests as much, others that Cephas' reputation was high enough for him to have attracted a following in Corinth without a personal presence (cf. 15:5 and Barrett 1982: 28–39). Either way, it is difficult to know what the Cephas party stood for. An old scholarly tradition (arising in the 19th cent. in the Tübingen school and revived by Goulder 1991 ) takes the Peter party to represent a conservative form of Jewish Christianity, which took the Jewish law as its continuing standard. However, evidence for this standpoint in Corinth is hard to find and the character and influence of the Cephas party remain an enigma. What is revealing, however, is that those who say they belong to Paul are only one segment of the Corinthian congregation. Without wanting to foster a Paul party in Corinth, Paul clearly needs to re-establish his authority over the whole church. 1 Cor 1–4 is thus characterized by a delicate balance between Paul's self-effacement, as he points to Christ and the cross, and his self-promotion as the ‘father’ of the Corinthian church and the model of Christian discipleship (cf. Dahl 1967 ).

Paul's first move is to ridicule the creation of such groups. Since the whole church belongs to Christ and constitutes his body ( 12:12–27 ) any such party splits threaten to dismember Christ (v. 13 ). Tactfully using the Paul party as his prime target, Paul insists that he is neither the origin of their salvation nor the one to whom they belong. Reference in v. 13 to baptism ‘in [lit. into] the name of Paul' indicates that baptism was usually performed in Pauline churches ‘into the name of Christ’ (cf. 12:12–13; Gal 3:27 ). It appears that the person of the baptizer is being given special significance in Corinth and Paul thus deliberately plays down his role in this regard: he can think of very few whom he has baptized (vv. 14–16 ; on Crispus and Gaius see 1 COR E.1). The sudden remembering of Stephanas' household (v. 16 ) underlines the insignificance of Paul's role in this matter; the initial lapse of memory might be genuine, but it also serves an obvious rhetorical role. Stephanas seems to have played some leadership role in the Corinthian church (see 1 COR 16:15–18 ). Paul insists that his commission was to ‘proclaim the gospel’, not to baptize (v. 17 ). This does not mean he considered baptism insignificant: he assumes that all believers have been baptized (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13 ) and elsewhere spells out its theological significance (Rom 6:1–11 ). But he had a different and specialized role: to preach the gospel of Christ crucified. By immediately disowning an interest in ‘eloquent wisdom’ (v. 17 ) he prepares the way for the next section of the letter.

( 1:18–2:5 ) The Message of the Cross, its Recipients and Proper Medium

At first glance, this section might appear a digression from the topic of party divisions, a subject which does not recur till 3:4 . But the conjunction of the themes of wisdom and party boasts in 3:18–23 indicates that the two are closely related. It is possible that wisdom (and specifically eloquence) was one of the bases on which Corinthian Christians were lining up behind different leaders (see above, on Apollos). But, more generally, Paul discerns in the claim of allegiance to vaunted leaders a fundamental misapprehension of the gospel, whose value-system is wholly opposed to the values of power and wisdom which the Corinthian competitiveness exhibits. Thus, typically, Paul attacks the disease which has brought about the worrying symptoms, and forces the Corinthians to recognize the counter-cultural impact of the gospel of Christ crucified, in its message ( 1:18–25 ), its chosen recipients ( 1:26–31 ), and its proper medium ( 2:1–5 ).

The message of the cross is portrayed as an uncompromising indictment of human values of wisdom and power, since it reverses their standards and undermines their pretensions. In 1:18 Paul introduces the twin antitheses of wisdom/foolishness and power/weakness, which undergird this whole section, and he embraces the apparent absurdity of his message of Christ crucified—absurd, however, only to those ‘who are perishing’. The division of humanity into two groups—‘those perishing’ and ‘those being saved’ (he never says believers have been saved)—is similar to the dualistic spirit of apocalyptic literature, as also are the pejorative nuances in phrases like ‘this age’ ( 1:20 ) and ‘the world’ ( 1:21 ). For Paul, the turning-point of the ages is precisely in the death (and resurrection) of Christ (cf. 15:20–8 ). The cross of Christ marks the final indictment of vaunted human ‘wisdom’, the fulfilment of the prediction of Isa 29:14 , cited in 1:19 . With rhetorical questions, Paul calls for those reputed to be wise (‘scribes’ are those so reputed in the Jewish world) and declares that God has not just bypassed ‘the wisdom of the world’ but utterly subverted it ( 1:20 ). The failure of humankind to know God according to its own system of wisdom triggers a divine plan springing from a deeper ‘wisdom of God’ ( 1:21; cf. Rom 1:18–23 ). In Jewish fashion, Paul divides humankind into two: Jews and Greeks/Gentiles (the two latter are synonymous in 1:22–4 , but the term ‘Greek’ is particularly well suited for association with wisdom). The distinction between their desires (Jews want ‘signs’—that is, demonstrations of divine power—and Greeks want ‘wisdom’) is rhetorically over-schematized, since Jews were also interested in wisdom (e.g. the Jewish wisdom material) and Greeks were also interested in supernatural power (e.g. in healing). But it enables Paul to present the message of Christ crucified as the inverse of all human values. It is ‘a stumbling-block’ to Jews (cf. Gal 5:11; 6:12–14 ), particularly because of the scriptural association between ‘hanging on a tree’ and being accursed by God (Deut 21:22–3 , cited in Gal 3:13 ); it is ‘foolishness’ to Gentiles, since this Roman punishment was universally feared as a hideously cruel and shameful death (the shame of prolonged, helpless, and public death being as devastating as its pain). But to those who are ‘called’ this ultimate symbol of weakness and absurdity represents, paradoxically, the precise locale where God displays his power and wisdom ( 1:24–5 ).

This negation of the human value-system is matched by God's call of believers ( 1:26–31 ). The social make-up of the Corinthian church proves Paul's point since few Corinthian Christians could claim status by education (‘wise’), political influence (‘powerful’), or ancestry (‘of noble birth’, 1:26 ). Although this observation plays a rhetorical function here, it must also be broadly true (for a social profile of the church, see 1 COR E.1–2). For Paul, the predominantly low-status composition of the church is no accident: it indicates precisely God's choice which aggressively ‘shames’ the wise and powerful in the world. To creat a rhetorical tricolon, Paul adds to his earlier twin motifs of wisdom and power a third category, the low (lit. ignoble) and despised ( 1:28 ) who shame those ‘of noble birth’ ( 1:26 ). He then expands this category to its fullest possible generalization: God chose the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are ( 1:28 ). The phrase ‘the nobodies’ depicts then, as now, those of no social significance, but it also evokes notions of God's creative role in bringing creation out of nothing (cf. Rom 4:17; Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17 ). And if salvation is entirely the creation of God, no human being can claim credit or rest confidence in any human attributes of status or significance ( 1:29 ). Theologically this line of thought is parallel to Paul's assault on Jewish boasting in Rom 2–4 , but here it is widened to embrace the whole human race. It is precisely the Corinthians' boasting and concomitant arrogance which Paul opposes throughout this letter (cf. 4:18; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4 ), and it is here exposed in its absurdity. All that salvation means in Christ (the list of abstract nouns in 1:30 sums up its meaning by reference to the core metaphors in Pauline theology) is possible only from God (so runs the Greek behind ‘he is the source of your life’, 1:30 ). And here Paul can rightly claim to be in continuity with the prophetic warning against self-confidence, citing ( 1:31 ) Jer 9:24 , whose context warns against glorying in wisdom, power, and wealth.

Finally, Paul addresses the question of the medium by which this message is conveyed ( 2:1–5 ) recalling the terms in which he first communicated the gospel. Here he pointedly eschews rhetorical ability, despite the fact that this passage, 1:18–2:5 , is one of the most rhetorically effective in the New Testament! In the Graeco-Roman world ‘wisdom’ was closely associated with rhetorical skill (‘lofty’ or ‘plausible’ words, 2:1, 4 ), which was a central element in ‘secondary’ education and was highly prized by a public which enjoyed listening to finely crafted speeches in the courtroom, assembly, or theatre (see Litfin 1994 ). Paul claims that his message was so completely focused on Christ crucified ( 2:2 ) that any decorative oratory would have been utterly inconsistent. His own weakness as messenger ( 2:3 ) matched the ‘weakness’ of the message, so that its powerful effect in evoking faith might be identified unmistakably as the power of the Spirit of God, not any human achievement ( 2:4–5 ). Paul here anticipates his later self-depiction as a figure of weakness and humiliation ( 4:9–13 ), characteristics which match the message of the cross (cf. 2 Cor 4:7–15; 11:21–12:10 ). Though they admired his letters (2 Cor 10:10 ), the élite Corinthian Christians clearly despised Paul's speaking abilities (2 Cor 11:6 ); but Paul regards his ‘disability’ here as precisely making visible the only ‘ability’ that counts, the power of God.

( 2:6–3:4 ) True Wisdom for Spiritual, not Bickering, Christians

At first sight 2:6–16 seems to shift into a different gear. After denigrating wisdom in 1:18–2:5 , Paul suddenly claims to impart wisdom, and in doing so changes from the first person singular (I) to the first person plural (we)—a change then reversed in 3:1 ff. What is more, the claim to privilege the ‘mature’ ( 2:6 ; the Greek could be translated ‘perfect’) looks out of step with the notion that the cross subverts human hierarchies ( 1:26–9 ), while several terms in this section of the letter are unusual or even unique in Pauline literature (e.g. ‘the depths of God’, 2:10 , and the contrast between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘unspiritual’, 2:13–15; cf. 15:44–6 and Pearson 1973 ). Is Paul claiming access to a higher wisdom than the folly of Christ crucified? Does this passage reveal an esoteric or mystical side to Pauline theology not witnessed elsewhere?

The best explanation is that Paul is not outlining a new or more esoteric form of wisdom, but spelling out the implications of his gospel in terms that partially reflect the vocabulary and concepts of the leaders of the church in Corinth, but also in such a way that he can spring a rhetorical trap on his dialogue partners in 3:1–5 . Although we cannot be fully confident in this matter, it is very likely that Paul picks up and reuses elements of the theological vocabulary of the Corinthian élite in this passage, for instance, their claim to be recipients of the revelation of the Spirit, to be ‘spiritual’ and not just in possession of ordinary, natural life (the ‘unspiritual’ of v. 14 ), to speak in Spirit-inspired terms to one another ( 2:13 ), and to be above critical scrutiny in such matters ( 2:15 ). Paul's skill in this passage is to accept and rework this pattern of vocabulary and then to turn it against the Corinthian élite in 3:1–5 when he argues that their behaviour in fact disqualifies their claim to be ‘spiritual’!

Paul first refers to a ‘wisdom’ communicated among the ‘mature’, which is hidden and decreed from eternity ‘for our glory’ ( 2:6–7 ). That may seem to confirm the élitist claims of the leaders of the Corinthian church who act as though they were already rich and filled ( 4:8 ). But Paul makes clear that he understands such concepts in an apocalyptic framework in which God's wisdom is precisely opposite to the wisdom claimed by ‘the world’, especially that espoused by the élite (‘the rulers of this age’); similarly, the ‘glory’ to which we are destined is not a present but a future possession ( 2:9 ). It has often been thought that ‘the rulers of this age’ referred to in 2:6 and 2:8 are the supernatural forces of evil which Paul elsewhere calls ‘powers’ and ‘authorities’ (e.g. 1 Cor 15:24; Rom 8:38; cf. Col 2:15 ). But the precise term he uses here (archontes) is more naturally taken to refer to (human) ‘political authorities’ (cf. Rom 13:3 ) and their responsibility for the crucifixion ( 2:8 ) strongly suggests that Paul is thinking primarily of earthly political powers. The notion that these powers are ‘doomed to perish’ matches the thought of 1:28 (where the same Gk. verb is used): those considered ‘something’ are shamed through the cross, while the ‘nothings’ in this world are destined for ‘glory’/honour ( 2:7 ). The shamed Crucified One turns out to be—by the same paradox as 1:25 —the ‘Lord of glory’ ( 2:8 ).

The ‘glory’ which is destined for believers ( 2:7 ) is defined in 2:9 as indescribably beyond human imagination by means of a pastiche of scriptural phrases, drawn principally from Isa 64:4 and 65:17 . The point here, developed in 2:10–16 , is that the Spirit gives access to a realm of knowledge, and a language in which to communicate it, quite beyond normal human knowledge and communication. This is not to suggest that the gospel is inherently irrational, but that its content and what it reveals about God's paradoxical purposes go well beyond the frame of reference in which human language operates. As suggested above, some of the vocabulary here might reflect the terms in which the ‘spiritual’ people in Corinth distinguished themselves from those who had merely normal human abilities, the psychikoi (those with merely natural human life, psychē) translated in 2:14 as ‘unspiritual’. However, by using the ‘we’ form throughout (e.g. ‘we have received … the Spirit that is from God’, 2:12 ), Paul suggests that these special attributes are applicable to all believers. Those who ‘love God’ ( 2:9; cf. 8:3 ) are gifted with ‘the gifts of God's Spirit’ ( 2:14; cf. 12:1–11 ), which, like the cross, appear foolish by worldly standards ( 2:14 ). The Spirit therefore enables an understanding much deeper than mere human knowledge ( 2:15 ). Indeed, Paul can even claim in 2:16 that the rhetorical question of Isa 40:13 (originally phrased to expect the answer ‘no one’) can be used to describe a position filled by believers, who really have ‘the mind of the Lord’ (here taken to refer to Christ). Such bold claims indicate that Paul regards Christian faith as opening a dimension of understanding far more profound than anything offered by nonbelieving perspectives; this is of a piece with his assertion that the cosmos, and time, and life, and death ‘belong to’ believers, inasmuch as they belong to Christ ( 3:21–3 ).

But Paul's dialogue with the élite in Corinth cannot rest here. He now springs on them a rhetorical trap which denies to them the very spiritual superiority he had described in such glowing terms in 2:6–16 . If what he has just described is the condition of the ‘spiritual’, let the Corinthians know that Paul could not initially impart such spiritual knowledge to them since they were merely ‘people of the flesh, infants in Christ’ ( 3:1 ). They cannot here be described as ‘unspiritual’ ( 2:14 ), since they had, as believers, received the Spirit ( 12:12–13 ); yet at the start of their Christian lives they were hardly spiritual in the terms they now claim, only ‘of the flesh’—that is, ensnared in merely human patterns of thought and behaviour (cf. the flesh–Spirit antithesis in Gal 5 and Rom 8 ). At that stage, they could only take milk and were not ready to be weaned ( 3:2 ). But now comes Paul's really devastating blow: ‘even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh’ ( 3:2–3 , emphasis added). In other words, all that Paul has been saying about ‘the spiritual’ and their understanding of the mysteries of God cannot really be applied to the Corinthians: he has built up the mystique of this category only to deny that the Corinthians can fit it! This is the first of many attempts in this letter to puncture the pride of the Corinthian Christians, but there is none more devastating. The basis of Paul's claim that they are still of the flesh is where the trap really bites: the jealousy and quarrelling evidenced in their claims of belonging to rival leaders ( 3:3–4 ) reveal precisely how immature they are! The party-groupings which set up rival claims to status in wisdom or in the excellence of the chosen leader indicate not how mature but how immature the Corinthian church is: their bids for superiority show just how inferior they are, operating on the level of mere squabbling humans rather than as gifted and inspired people of the Spirit. Thus it appears that the party claims (‘I belong to Paul’ etc.) which seemed to disappear from sight after 1:18 were actually in the background all along. For Paul they represent a mindset determined by the values of ‘this age’ which have been fundamentally subverted by the message of the cross ( 1:18–2:5 ) and superseded by the new depths of understanding afforded by the Spirit ( 2:6–16 ).

( 3:5–4:5 ) Models of Leadership in the Church

Now that he has returned to the topic of party groups in the Corinthian church ( 3:4 ), Paul constructs another line of argument against such factionalism, this time focused on leadership and its evaluation. To align oneself with one or another leader is, for Paul, to commit three cardinal errors: (1) to place leaders on a pedestal, where they do not belong; (2) to play them off inappropriately against one another; and (3) to reward them with human praise rather than leaving to God the assessment of their work. These three themes are the principal elements in the discussion of leadership in 3:5–4:5 , which Paul develops by using metaphors drawn from agriculture ( 3:5–9 ), building ( 3:9–17 ), and household slavery ( 4:1–5 ). 3:18–23 forms an interlude which links this section back to 1:18–31 and points to the folly of the boasting which takes place in leadership competitions.

The agricultural metaphors in 3:5–9 emphasize the subordinate nature of Christian leadership as a task fulfilled only at the bidding of the Lord ( 3:5, 8 ) and in utter dependence on God's creative activity ( 3:6–7, 9 ). Paul and Apollos are no more than servants through whom (not in whom) the Corinthians believed ( 3:5 ). Paul, as founder of the church (a role he recalls frequently in this letter, cf. 3:10; 4:15; 9:2 ), may be said to have been its planter; Apollos' subsequent activity was to water the plants ( 3:6 ). But neither role is of any value without the gift of growth to the plants, a gift which only God can bestow ( 3:6–7 ). The Corinthians belong to the church by God's calling ( 1:2, 26–7 ), and it is God alone who is ‘the source of your life in Christ Jesus’ ( 1:30 ): thus it is absurd to use slogans which suggest that their leaders were themselves the creators, rather than simply the instruments, of the church's life. Moreover, the two tasks of planting and watering cannot be played off against one another: the two workers ‘have a common purpose’ ( 2:8 ; lit. ‘are one’), so it is senseless to claim to belong to one and not to the other. They are ‘working together’ in an agricultural project planned and owned by God ( 3:9 ). And they will receive their reward not through human adulation but by God's assessment of their labour ( 3:8 ).

The end of 3:9 switches the metaphor to that of building, an image which governs the discussion of leadership in 3:10–15 and is then extended with reference to the temple ( 3:16–17 ). Paul the planter in 3:6 is now Paul the master builder, who laid the foundation of the church in Corinth ( 3:10 ). In this case reference is made not to Apollos, but to ‘someone else’ who is building on that foundation. Since within this metaphor God is less clearly the means of growth, the spotlight falls on human beings with responsibility for building, with a none-too-veiled threat that they may be performing their task badly ( 3:10, 12–13 ). The aggressive tone in Paul's voice has led many commentators to suspect that he is attacking some specific individual(s) in the church (e.g. Barrett 1971: 87–8). Moreover, it is tempting to take 3:11 as a rebuke of those who claim to belong to Cephas, on the basis of the famous rock prediction: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’ (Mt 16:18 ). It is just possible that Paul is here attacking Peter and his influence in Corinth, though elsewhere in the letter he speaks of Peter in unpolemical terms ( 9:5; 15:5 ) and we do not know if the rock saying, which is found only in Matthew, was known in Corinth at this date. Paul is concerned at the direction of the current leadership of the church, and reveals those anxieties by warning of the consequences of building with worthless materials ( 3:12–15 ). Again the test of value comes not from present human assessment but from God's definitive judgement which will operate on ‘the Day’. Building on traditional images of ‘the Day of the Lord’ as a fiery event (e.g. Mal 3:2–3; 4:1; cf. 2 Thess 1:7–8 ), Paul suggests that all worthless building materials will be consumed and the builder rewarded or punished (‘suffer loss’, 3:15 ) on the basis of what survives. The context suggests that he is referring specifically to those with leadership responsibilities, rather than to each individual believer. His basis for confidence that the builder will survive, even if his work is destroyed, is that God's grace has a secure grasp of those in Christ (cf. 5:5; 11:32 ). However, that does not negate the possibility that believers may somehow prise themselves away from Christ by continual and deliberate disloyalty (cf. 9:27; 10:6–12 ).

Indeed the seriousness of the building work being undertaken in Corinth is underlined in the extension of the metaphor to the church as a temple ( 3:16–17 ). Elsewhere, each Christian's body is described as a temple of the Holy Spirit ( 6:19 ), but here (as in 2 Cor 6:16 ) the church as a collective is so described. This is a striking transfer of terminology and allegiance from the Jerusalem temple, which was still standing at this time and was the object of reverence by Jews both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. Paul's Gentile converts were never instructed to pay any attention, or contribute any taxes, to that building; nor, of course, did they construct any ‘temples’ of their own. They were encouraged, rather, to think of themselves as a temple, the locus of God's holy presence. Thus, to inflict damage on a church community is to touch God's precious sanctuary, inviting his immediate judgement ( 3:17 ). Builders in Corinth should beware that they really build and do not destroy (cf. 8:10–11 ).

3:18–23 briefly interrupts the sequence of metaphors to underline once more the counter-cultural character of Christian commitment ( 3:18–19 echoes themes from 1:18–31 ). Expanding quotes from Job 5:12 and Ps 94:11 , Paul emphasizes again God's opposition to the worldly standards of evaluation which undergird the Corinthians' rivalry as they boast in competing leaders ( 3:19–21 ). In fact, their slogans suggest a fundamental misapprehension of themselves and of the relationship between church and leader. Instead of saying ‘I belong to Paul’ (or whomever), they should recognize rather that Paul (or Apollos or Cephas) ‘belong to’ them ( 3:21–2 ). Although God's servants may play important roles in founding and encouraging the church, their purpose is not to win admirers or adherents but to serve the church to which they belong. By placing leaders on a pedestal the Corinthian church actually demeans itself: the leaders are there for the sake of the church, not the other way around. And Paul can expand this principle rhetorically with the claim that the world, life, death, and time are at the service of the church, because this community is not some mere club or social gathering but the centre of God's plan for the world and history ( 3:22; cf. 6:2–3 and the expansion of this theme in Colossians and Ephesians). At least, the church has that role inasmuch as (and only inasmuch as) it belongs to Christ (that is the one slogan from 1:12 which Paul does not here reverse); and Christ himself belongs to God (cf. 11:3; 15:28 ). As the token of the new creation in the midst of ‘this age’, the church has a significance far greater than the leaders God uses to serve it. But its significance lies only in the fact that it belongs and bears witness to Christ, the agent of God's re-creative power in the universe.

The third metaphor of leadership is that of household slaves, specifically stewards ( 4:1–5 ). Again it is implied that such figures should not be the objects of praise (they are only agents of Christ, or of ‘the mysteries of God’); but the emphasis here falls on the assessment of their work. Stewards are held accountable as to their trustworthiness ( 4:2 ), but by their masters, not by those they encounter in the course of their work (cf. Rom 14:4 ). At this point, Paul becomes directly personal, applying the metaphor specifically to himself as one who might come under the Corinthians' scrutiny ( 4:3 ) but who prefers to leave the judgement to his master ( 4:4 ; ‘the Lord’, kyrios, means also ‘the master’ of a slave). Here then emerges, what we might have suspected all along, that the party divisions in Corinth represent a critical evaluation of Paul's apostleship, inasmuch as some claim to belong to others and not to Paul ( 1:12 ). As in 9:3 , Paul hints at a body of opposition to his authority, but he attempts to defuse it by insisting that it is inappropriate for the Corinthians to judge his behaviour, and premature as well: when the Lord comes (and not before), he will give full and final judgement ( 4:4–5 ). What will count then is commendation from God ( 4:5 ), not the measure of praise (or criticism) leaders currently receive from members of the church.

( 4:6–21 ) Paul's Apostolic Style and Authority

The personal turn taken in Paul's final leadership metaphor ( 4:1–5 ) indicates the progression of the argument towards self-defence. It now becomes clear that Paul is under attack in Corinth, unfavourably compared with other leaders and criticized specifically for the poor figure he cuts and for his long absence from the scene. Paul's response requires him to confront and ridicule Corinthian pride (vv. 6–8 ), to describe, by contrast, his own highly vulnerable ministry (vv. 9–13 ), and finally to assert his fatherly authority in Corinth and announce his forthcoming visit (vv. 14–21 ).

Paul's first target is the inflated sense of importance in the Corinthian church, which he regards as the cause of their party rivalries: they are puffed up in comparing one leader with another, congratulating themselves on their chosen objects of allegiance (v. 6 ). Looking back on 3:5–4:5 , Paul says he has ‘applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit’ (v. 6 ). The Greek here is slightly obscure and might mean simply that he has put his discussion in the form of analogies (relating to Apollos and himself) rather than using literal speech, or that he has changed the analogies from one metaphor to another (gardener, builder, steward) to make his points as clear as possible. Another possible nuance is that he has disguised his meaning, making explicit reference to Apollos and himself, but really referring to other people (e.g. Cephas?). But it is unnecessary to attribute to Paul some subtle encoding of his message. He is simply drawing attention to his use of metaphor to indicate that he has set out these various leadership models in order to undercut the rivalries which afflict the Corinthian church. It is very hard to discern the source or meaning of the saying Paul cites in this context, ‘Nothing beyond what is written’ (v. 6 ; some suspect that the text is corrupt at this point). This looks like a slogan, but whose is it, and does it refer to Scripture or to something else that was ‘written’ (see Hooker 1963; Fee 1987: 166–9)? Few scholars claim to understand the allusion, which one imagines made more sense to the Corinthians than it does to us.

Paul regards Corinthian pride as manifest in a sense of special achievement and perfection. Their giftedness, which he recognized in 1:4–7 , led to a sense of distinction, which easily obliterated gratitude for gifts received (v. 7 ). They have been enriched (by God, 1:5 ), but imagine themselves simply rich (v. 8 ); their notions of fullness and royal authority might be related to the Stoic notion of the self-sufficiency of the perfectly wise man. The sarcasm of v. 8 is an attempt to puncture that pride, and the following verses deflate it by depicting the life of the apostles (supposedly the models of the church) as the very opposite of the honour and victory which the Corinthians expect for themselves. Like those under a sentence of death, who are brought on at the end of a public spectacle to entertain the masses by their gruesome deaths, the apostles are a despicable sight, watched only to be ridiculed (v. 9 ). Their reputations match the folly, powerlessness, and shame of the cross (v. 10 echoes the themes of 1:18–25 ), and vv. 11–13 spell this out in practical terms, with some intriguing echoes of the ethos of the gospels (e.g. Mk 6:7–12; Lk 6:24–31 ). Included in this list of demeaning conditions of life is the fact that Paul works with his own hands (v. 12 ). That suggests that he is combating an ethos fostered by the social élite (who alone looked down on manual labour); in deliberate and perhaps exaggerated contrast, Paul presents himself as the scum of the earth (v. 13; cf. 1:28–9 ).

The polemical purpose of this self-portrait is evident when Paul declares his aim to be to ‘admonish’ his ‘children’ (v. 14 ); he denies that he wants to shame them (cf. however 6:5 ), but that cannot be ruled out as a proper result. It now becomes clear that Paul's role as founder of the church is crucial to his present bid to correct them. However many teachers and leaders may have operated in Corinth, they can have no status higher than ‘guardian’ (lit. childminder—the slave employed by parents to guard the safety of their children), whereas Paul is unique as their ‘father’ (v. 15 ). Paul wants to claim this role even in relation to those who were converted through other evangelists (e.g. after his departure from Corinth) and he uses it, as fathers often did in the ancient world, to require that his ‘children’ imitate his pattern of life and thought (v. 16 ). He is dispatching Timothy (perhaps with this letter) to reinforce his point, but also now promises to come in person (vv. 17–21 ). It appears that his long absence from Corinth has been criticized, or at least exploited, by those who think Paul's opinion about their affairs is insignificant (v. 18 ). With a final rhetorical flourish (still utilized by parents!) Paul offers them a choice: it is up to them whether he comes with gentleness or punishment (v. 21 ). This threat proved to be a fatal mistake, since Paul, when he finally did visit Corinth, found himself facing stiffer opposition than he had anticipated, and his stay proved extremely painful (2 Cor 2:1–2 ). The assertion of authority was to backfire in outright repudiation of Paul and still harsher criticisms of his ministry: in 2 Corinthians we can watch him trying to patch up a now deeply uneasy relationship.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2014. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice