One of the problems connected with the first century spiritual gifts was jealousy over who had the better gifts. The most popular gift was speaking in tongues. Most of those in Corinth to whom Paul was writing seemed to think that this was the very best gift.
Paul shows them that prophecy (inspired preaching) was the more valuable gift. Tongues were a sign for unbelievers, but prophecy was for those who believe (verse 22). If they were to be zealous for spiritual gifts, they should excel “for the edification of the church” (verse 12; see also verse 26).
God did not give these gifts to make some Christians superior to other disciples. The gifts were all given by the Lord, through the Spirit, to equip the church so that it might function more smoothly in its early days.
Today, if there are problems in the church, we solve them by looking into the New Testament to determine God’s will. But, before the New Testament was completed, they had spiritual gifts to help them know what God wanted them to do.
Another problem in the Corinthian church is discussed in the closing verses of chapter 14. Besides the misunderstanding of the importance of each gift, they also were not regulating the gifts properly.
He gives the example that some were speaking in tongues (which meant that they were speaking in real foreign languages that they had never studied and could not have known how to speak without God’s Spirit working in them), but they did not have an interpreter present to tell anyone what was being said. Modern day tongue speaking involves an unintelligible, meaningless gibberish that no one can interpret.
Also, many of them were speaking out of turn and, therefore, it was confusing because several people would be trying to talk at the same time.
In addition, during their worship services, the Christians were being loud and sometimes out of control in their exercise of these gifts. It was rather chaotic and so Paul gives them guidelines about how to use the gifts properly and reminds them, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (verse 40).
The “more excellent way” talked about in this chapter is love.
The first section (verses 1-3) shows us that, without love, nothing else really matters.
Great talent is insignificant is it is not used to love and serve others. Helping others is important but we must serve them because of our love for God and people. Miracles are performed (in the first century) in vain if they are not offered out of a motive of love.
The second section (verses 4-8a) is the most beautiful description of love man has ever heard, because it was inspired by God.
Paul describes love, by inspiration, as being patient, kind, not envious, not quick to anger, not arrogant or proud. Love behaves politely and properly. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures. Love never fails.
The third section (verses 8b-13) reveals the duration of the gifts. They were to fail, cease, or vanish away “when that which is perfect has come.” There are two basic views in the religious world about what this means.
Some believe this is speaking of the return of Christ. When He comes back, spiritual gifts will cease. Of course, this event is in the future and would therefore mean that the gifts continue even in our present time. But these gifts were given by the laying on of an apostle’s hands (Acts 8:17-18) and when the apostles had all died, there was no provision for them to continue.
The other view, which is more consistent with the teaching of the New Testament, is that this refers to the completed revelation of God’s word. When the Bible was finished, the spiritual gifts ended.
Chapters 12-14 deal with their misuse and misunderstanding about spiritual gifts. Each chapter has unique content.
Chapter 12 – explanation of the gifts
Chapter 13 – duration of the gifts
Chapter 14 – regulation of the gifts
The nine spiritual gifts are enumerated in verses 8-10. They are the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healings, the working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, different kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. All came from the same Holy Spirit.
Verses 12-31 show how the gifts worked together like the various members of the human body.
Every part of the human body performs a unique function.
Paul describes it as though the human body parts could have a conversation with one another. The foot might argue that it is less important than a hand and so it did not feel necessary. An ear might reason that because it is not an eye, it does not contribute as much to the working of the body. Some Christians in Corinth were discouraged because they did not feel as important as some other Christians, due to the “lesser” gift they had received.
Likewise, some were touting their superiority over others. The eye cannot tell the hand that he is not needed. And a hand cannot tell the feet that they are not as important as the hand is. All the parts of the physical body work together to help us lead a successful spiritual life.
Every spiritual gift was important and no one gift was to be preferred over the others. In the same way, each member of the body of Christ is important and no one should feel superior or inferior to any other disciple.
There are two major themes in this chapter.
Verses 2-16 deal with issues of authority and headship, especially as they related to the woman’s head covering. Women who had spiritual gifts, such as praying or prophesying, were exercising their gifts without wearing a covering to show their submission to male authority.
This section has been the source of much contention and even division among the people of God over the years. Sincere believers on both sides of the issue have searched for truth and come to different conclusions about whether this covering is binding on Christian women today.
There are those disciples who believe that this passage remains binding on Christians today and that women must wear a head covering when worshiping God.
Some Christians believe this was a local custom, a societal norm that showed a woman’s subjection to a man and that, as citizens of that system, Christian women should continue to wear the veil. In other places, where no such custom existed, it was unnecessary.
Others feel that this was something done only during the age of miraculous spiritual gifts and only for those women who used those gifts in the presence of Christian men. When the gifts ceased, so did the need for this symbol of subjection.
Some, therefore, see the covering as a matter of faith for all time, while others believe it to have been a cultural tradition for first century Corinth only.
Verses 17-34 correct an abuse of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians had turned it from a memorial feast of Christ’s death into a common, ordinary meal. Paul reminds them of its true spiritual meaning.
He distinguishes here between items of collective worship (which the Lord’s Supper is and a regular meal is not) and home activities (which normal meals are and the Lord’s Supper is not). We must be careful not to confuse what we can do as individuals or as families and what the church can do in worship to God.
Paul ends Chapter 9 by encouraging the disciples to compete for the prize, an imperishable crown (stephanos) of victory.
This chapter begins by reminding them of some Hebrew history. Paul refers to a number of Old Testament accounts to show the Corinthians that if they did not continue to be obedient to the Lord’s will, they could fall from God’s favor.
The specific sins and Old Testament examples of them are as follows:
- Verse 6 – Lusting for evil things (Numbers 11)
- Verse 7 – Idolatry (Exodus 32)
- Verse 8 – Sexual immorality (Numbers 25)
- Verse 9 – Tempting God (Exodus 17)
- Verse 10 – Complaining (Exodus 16; Numbers 14)
These stories are preserved for us in God’s holy word as warnings about sinning against God to help us realize that He hates all iniquity. Just as many of them fell from God’s grace, we can also if we persist in sin.
In verses 14-22, the apostle points out to them that Christians cannot be partly in the church and partly in the world. They cannot rightly take part in the Lord’s table and also in the table of demons (or sin). God is never satisfied with part of our hearts; He demands the entirety of our being. James refers to those who try to hold the world with one hand and God with the other as “adulterers and adulteresses” (James 4:4).
He returns to the idea that Christians need to be aware of their influence on other people and refrain from certain activities that might cause others to stumble into sin themselves.
Paul also reminds them of the one overriding purpose of all Christians. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (verse 31).
The principle established in the previous chapter was that a Christian should not exercise his personal liberties if this would cause a weaker Christian to stumble.
In chapter 9, Paul uses himself as an illustration of giving up certain rights, so that he would not wound anyone’s conscience. The primary example he uses is that he did not take any financial support for preaching the gospel in Corinth. He did not want anybody to think that he preached simply for the money.
If you recall, Acts 18:1-17 tells us about Paul’s initial visit to Corinth, when the church was established in this first century city. The first few verses of that chapter inform us that, while Paul was preaching in Corinth, he worked as a tentmaker with Aquila and Priscilla, a husband and wife team. While he had the right to be paid for his work as an evangelist, he did not want to be a financial burden to the church. (He says, in 2 Corinthians 11:8, that he was paid by other churches during part of his time in Corinth.)
He further emphasizes that his motive for preaching the gospel was to save as many souls as possible, not to make as much money as possible.
Paul risked his life on many occasions to make disciples of Christ. He listed many of the hardships he endured for the Lord in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. As you read that listing of his trials and difficulties, it is hard for us to realize the challenges faced by first century evangelists whose very lives were often in danger. They persevered because they kept their eyes on Christ and the ultimate reward, rather than on the hardships (Hebrews 12:1-2).
At the conclusion of the chapter, Paul reminds the disciples that all Christians must discipline themselves and remain pure in body and spirit so that they do not fall away from the Lord. He goes so far as to say that he himself, as an apostle, might become disqualified, if he failed to practice self-control. This is only one of the many New Testament passages that deny the false doctrine known as “once saved, always saved.”
Chapters 8-10 deal with matters of Christian liberties. Chapter 8 speaks about the problem of eating meat offered to idols. The specific issue is not a problem today but the principles of dealing with others do still apply.
One thing is clear, at least to us two thousand years later. There are no such things as idol gods and, therefore, eating meat that had been sacrificed to “nothing” is not a problem that defiles anyone.
But this chapter emphasizes to us that, even if something is acceptable to the Lord, we must always consider what impact any action would have on other Christians (verses 8-13).
Realizing that there will always be stronger and weaker Christians in every local church, those who are stronger must consider the effect that their actions will have on weaker saints. We should not use our liberty in Christ to do what we want, without some consideration of how weaker disciples might be emboldened to do something similar, but that is actually wrong or sinful.
This section of the book is parallel in many ways to the teaching of Romans 14 (and part of Romans 15). Since scripture is best interpreted in light of other scriptures, we must understand all of this material in these chapters consistently.
These chapters, along with the Romans 14-15 verses, show us just how difficult it was, in the first century, to unite Jews and Gentiles together in the church. The situation is similar, in many respects, to the racial tensions that still exist in our current society. Around the world, there are racial divides that are difficult to bridge. Christians should realize that we hold the key to removing these stumbling blocks. The answer is the love of God and love of our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
We do not serve our God as “Lone Ranger” Christians. We are part of a family and need to think about our influence and how it will appear to others.
Chapter Seven begins a series of chapters in which Paul answers some questions that the church in Corinth had sent to him. The first issue he deals with is marriage.
Everything in the chapter must be considered in the context of what Paul refers to as “the present distress” (verse 26). While there are no clues in the chapter about what that was, most Bible students believe it was most likely a reference to persecution of Christians.
There are two overriding principles taught in this chapter.
First, if you are not married, Paul recommends that you not get married under the current circumstances. He is not saying it is wrong (verses 9, 28), simply unwise. An unmarried person can focus on serving God without distraction. If they were undergoing severe persecution, it would be even more challenging to remain faithful for one who is married. A married person might want to compromise truth if his/her spouse was in danger.
Second, those who are married should be the best spouse they can be, even if (maybe especially if) they are married to a non-Christian. He does not tell a Christian to divorce a non-Christian mate, rather he says exactly the opposite. It was important for the disciples to realize that nothing Paul taught should be understood to weaken the marriage bond, but rather to strengthen it.
Verse 15 has often been misused as a scriptural reason for divorce, that is, the desertion of a spouse. When Paul says that one who is abandoned is “not under bondage,” he is not granting permission to choose a new spouse, he is telling them that they are no longer required to fulfill marital duties for the deserter.
And he also tells them that a widow (in principle, a widower as well) has the right to remarry, “only in the Lord,” that is, in keeping with everything else the Bible teaches about marriage.
Another problem in Corinth was the issue of Christians taking one another to court. Rather than allowing stronger Christians in the local church to help solve problems between each other, they were going “to law before the unrighteous.” Paul tells them to act like Christians should and “let yourselves be cheated.”
The apostle also reminds them of their ungodly past. In doing so, he lists many sins that will cause people to be lost. Such lists are in the Bible as warnings to Christians in the first century and to us.
When he lists the sins of verses 9-10 that he says will keep people out of heaven, we must remember that any sin can be forgiven by God. But a part of our initial pardon includes the concept of repentance. Repentance means that we not only change our minds about a particular sin, but we also resolve in our hearts to stop committing that sin. We cannot expect God to forgive us of any sin that we are unwilling to give up. We cannot claim that, because we are now Christians and forgiven by the Lord, we can continue practicing sexual sins, idolatry, stealing, covetousness, drunkenness, reviling or swindling others for financial gain.
He especially reminds us that sexual immorality is a sin against the God-given purpose for our physical bodies. We, as Christians, are not to take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot. We are to keep ourselves pure, body, soul, and spirit. Do not forget that our bodies are described as “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” who is in you, whom you have from God.
We are not allowed as followers of Christ to use our bodies in whatever way we choose. We must use our bodies in a way that honors and glorifies Him.
Rather than serving the world and Satan, disciples of Christ are to use their bodies (and their spirits) to serve God. We belong to Him because He bought us with the blood of Christ.
Chapter Five begins the next section of the letter and it deals with the issue of sexual immorality. Many churches since the first century have struggled with problems of immorality among the people of God.
The first century world was highly immoral, just like our current time. Temptation was everywhere and, in Corinth, one of the disciples had taken up with his stepmother. (The Greek word for mother is not in the context, so it was not his mother, but his father’s current wife.) The church was not dealing with the sin and others were in danger of being influenced by the ungodly leaven.
Paul instructs the church to purge out the old leaven of ungodliness by delivering this man “to Satan,” a reference to church discipline. This would purify the church so that others would not be tempted to commit the same sin. Known sin in the church must not be tolerated.
Notice in verse 5, that one of the reasons for church discipline is “the destruction of the flesh,” that is, the destruction of fleshly desires. That was the problem here; the man was being controlled by physical, fleshly lusts and could only be rescued if something destroyed those evil passions. Perhaps the reality of being withdrawn from (2 Thessalonians 3:6) by his brothers and sisters in Christ would shock him into repentance.
Paul makes a clear distinction between the people of the world (those who are outside) and those who are Christians (those who are inside). He tells them not to associate with ungodly people, but he explains to them that he is not referring to non-Christians by pointing out that to totally avoid ungodly people you would have to leave the planet. We must simply not allow ourselves to be influenced in a negative way by Christians who are not living right.
He goes so far as to say that we must not even “eat with such a person.” Eating a meal together had much significance in the first century. It showed not only friendship and a close relationship with another, it indicated approval of the other as well. He does not want them to engage in any behavior, with a common meal together as just one example, that would lead the other person to believe that you approve of his or her behavior. It might seem extreme, but this is a critical situation that requires serious action.
His conclusion, then, is simple. “Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”