Some background on 1 Corinthians (in addition to that given in the Bible Dictionary): The church at Corinth was founded by Paul in 51 A.D, and this letter was probably written in the early spring of 57. Corinth had a reputation for debauchery in the ancient world, and that in a world that was tolerant of sexual promiscuity of all kinds.
Paul and Sosthenes (the two of them are the senders of this letter—see verse 1) are responding to two things: reports from Chloe about what is happening in Corinth (chapters 1-6) and a letter that the Corinthian members have written and sent to him with Stephanas, asking Paul questions about marriage, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, how women should conduct themselves in church, etc. (chapters 7-15). Paul’s answers to the particular questions of the first century may not be relevant to us, but the principles he uses to answer those questions certainly remain relevant.
A man named Sosthenes was the rule of the synagogue in Corinth (see Acts 18:17—these two people may not be the same; we don’t know). If these two people are the same, then Paul is writing a letter to the congregation with the equivalent of a latter-day bishop as his cosender, though Paul appears to be its only author.
Paul has learned that several factions have arisen among the members of the Corinthian church:
- One of the factions has made a hero of Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria (and, therefore, a Hellenized Jewish convert). He is well-educated and eloquent and seems to have impressed a significant number, though a minority, in the Corinthian congregation. But notice that he is with Paul at Ephesus when Paul writes this epistle to the Corinthians. The scriptures do not portray him as a usurper or competitor with Paul. (See Acts 18:24-28; 1 Corinthians 3:4-6; 4:6; 16:12.) In fact, some believe that Apollos rather than Paul was the author of Hebrews, perhaps writing what he had heard Paul teach.
- Some argue that there are also Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who have created a faction by questioning Paul’s authority and arguing, once again, for the necessity of keeping the Mosaic law.
- A third faction, apparently the majority and probably made up mostly of poor freedmen and slaves, have rejected the other two factions and boast that they follow Paul.
- It is disputed, but there may have been yet a fourth faction, those who claimed a special relation to or special knowledge of Christ. (The end of 1 Corinthians 1:12 suggests this possibility.)
With that background in mind, ask yourself whether we see anything like this in the Church today? What causes our divisions? Why aren’t those divisions relatively harmless? (Compare Doctrine and Covenants 98:76-101.) If we don’t have such divisions, must we all be exactly alike? What is the difference between a difference between us and a division among us?
Since the concept of Christian wisdom is central to both parts of the letter, I will focus my questions on Paul’s explicit discussion of that topic (1 Corinthians 1:17-31) as well as the first part of chapter 1.
Verse 1: Paul describes himself not just as a messenger—apostolos is the Greek word, which we transliterate as “apostle.” It means “messenger. But Paul says he is a called apostle. How might some have understood Paul’s relation to the early Church? What point is he making about that relationship in this verse?
Verse 2: Paul speaks of those who are “called to be saints” (in other words, called to be holy) “with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” What is the relationship between being called and calling on the Lord’s name? What relationship is Paul describing between the saints at Corinth and those in every other place?
Verses 4-8: What is Paul thankful for in verse 4? Can you put that in contemporary English? Does it have any relevance to our own situation?
In what sense does Jesus Christ enrich the saints “in every thing” (verse 5)? Are utterance and knowledge things that Paul has in mind? If so, how does he enrich what they say and know?
Verse 6 should probably be translated “because the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you.” What does it mean for the testimony of Christ to be confirmed in a person or in a congregation?
What does Paul mean when he tells the Corinthians that the Lord will “confirm” them to the end (verse 8)? How does being confirmed mean that they will be blameless at Judgment Day? Another translation of “confirm” is “strengthen” and yet another is “establish.” Does that change or supplement your understanding of what Paul is saying?
How does the testimony and praise of verse 9 relate to what has come just before it?
Verses 10-15: The letter proper begins in verse 10. The verses prior to that were all introduction. We expect differences of opinion between the members of any congregation, but Paul is addressing something more serious, schismata in Greek: schisms, factions, dissensions. Why are schisms within the Church such a danger? What leads to schisms?
What does it mean to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment [or purpose]” (verse 10)? Does it mean that there should be no differences of opinion among the Corinthians? About what should they be of the same mind and purpose?
In verses 12-15 why doesn’t Paul defend those who have called themselves by his name in the arguments among the Corinthians?
Why is Paul pleased that he baptized very few of the Corinthians (verses 14-16)?
Verse 17: Why might Paul have said that he wasn’t called to baptize? (Knowing that the Greek word translated “sent” is closely related to the Greek word translated “apostle” may give you an idea.)
What does he mean when he says that he was sent “to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words [or speaking]”? What is the wisdom of words? What other wisdom can there be? What does he mean by “the cross of Christ”? Why would it be of “no effect” if Paul were to teach by the wisdom of words?
Verse 18: Who is Paul speaking of when he refers to “them that perish”?
What does it mean to preach the cross? Why do you think Paul puts such focus on the cross rather than on the resurrection or on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane? Why is the cross foolishness to some? To whom? How is the cross the power of God to those who are saved?
Verse 19: Paul quotes the Greek version of Isaiah 29:19, which is slightly different than the version we use: “the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding [or prudence] of their prudent men shall be hid.” Look at the Isaiah passage to see its context. Does that context tell us anything about what Paul is saying here?
Verse 20: Compare Isaiah 33:18. What does Paul mean when he asks, rhetorically, whether God hasn’t made the wisdom of the world into foolishness?
What would those in Corinth who laud Apollos have thought wisdom to be? What did the Judaizers understand to be wisdom? How has the wisdom exhibited through the cross turned each of those kinds of wisdom into foolishness? What does Paul mean by “the world”?
Verse 21: The first part of this verse is difficult to read. Here is another translation that may help you understand what Paul is saying: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world was unable to recognize God through wisdom” (New Jerusalem Bible).
What does Paul say is the problem with the wisdom of the world? What is the wisdom of the world for us? What does God do in response to the problem of the wisdom of the world? Is Paul condemning worldly knowledge? If not, what is he doing? Who are “those who believe”? Believe what?
Verses 22-25: What sign or signs did the Jews seek? (Compare Matthew 12:38, and John 4:48 and 6:30-31.) What wisdom did the Greeks seek? How does the preaching of the Gospel compare to signs and wisdom?
How was Christ’s crucifixion a stumbling-block to the Jews? What made it foolishness to the Greeks?
Verse 24 tells us what Christ crucified means to those who have been called.
How do the power of God and the wisdom of God compare to the signs and wisdom sought (verse 24)?
If God doesn’t have foolishness or weakness, how can Paul say what he does in verse 25?
Verses 26-29: Compare Doctrine and Covenants 1:19. Why does God seldom call “wise men after the flesh,” or powerful (“mighty”) people, or well-born (“noble”) people as his leaders? Is that still true? Does he still generally not call those kind of people to be our highest leaders? If things have changed, why have they changed?
Why do the wise and the mighty need to be confounded?
What do you make of the fact that Paul begins verse 26 with a phrase that means, essentially, “Think about your own calling, brethren, and you will see”?
What is he saying to those in Corinth? Is that an insult or a criticism? If we think about our callings, do we see the same thing?
Who would have been despised by the Jews (verse 28)? by the Greeks? In other words, who are these “things that are nought”—non-entities (see Romans 9:24-26)—who Paul says will overcome “things that are,” in other words the wise, mighty, and well-born? How does the Lord’s way of working, using those who are nothing to do his work, make it impossible for anyone to glory? Why is glorying in the presence of God something he wishes to prevent? (See Doctrine and Covenants 29:36 and Moses 4:1.)
Verses 30-31: I would translate the first part of verse 30 as “But through him you are in Christ Jesus.” What does it mean to be “in Christ Jesus”? Paul uses that phrase 39 times. The only other uses are when Peter uses it (1 Peter 5:14) and once when Alma uses it (Alma 5:44). (Alma’s usage may have a slightly different meaning than the other instances.) The phrase is obviously an important one to Paul, the person responsible for more of the New Testament than any other. What does it mean?
How is Christ’s wisdom righteousness (i.e., justice), sanctification, and redemption to us?
Paul says that a person, namely Jesus Christ, can be wisdom, righteousness, etc., though we usually think of these things as principles rather than people. What does his usage mean? How does that confound the Jews of his time? the Greeks? In verse 31 Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:24 (the Greek version) to tell us that the Father has done this so that anyone who glorifies will have to glorify God.
Now consider a frequently quoted scripture from this letter, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: “Ye are the temple of God.” The Greek word translated “ye” in these verses is plural rather than singular. What does that suggest? Are we misquoting this verse when we understand it to speak of the physical body? How is this verse a response to the problems that Paul is dealing with? How does 1 Corinthians 6:19 fit with this verse?
Please comment on this at Feast upon the Word.