I Corinthians 2
I Corinthians 2:1-5: Paul has been contrasting the wisdom of God, found in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, with the wisdom of the world. In these verses, Paul continues to contrast “wisdoms,” but with a little different twist. Paul was an educated person who could write thoughtful and profound letters and he is not extolling an anti-intellectualism here. He is simply saying that in his preaching and teaching as he founded this church, he was not relying on his own abilities to be intellectually brilliant, though he may have been at times, but rather trying to be a person through whom others came to know the power of God. Paul no doubt appealed to some sense of common intelligibility in his preaching, but he was more concerned to show how the way of Jesus was different from the way of success as understood in the surrounding culture. Paul’s task is our task, relating the gospel intelligibly in our day and time, while not being so caught up in making our speech so plausible that the power of God is lost. The way of Jesus may resonate with deep hopes in our culture, but it is a way different from much of what our culture teaches us.
I Corinthians 2:6-16: While Paul may not have tried to be “brilliant,” here he claims that his teaching and preaching contained wisdom. Did he “speak wisdom” to those who were mature, or is it that those who were mature understood that Paul was speaking wisdom all along? Paul may be suggesting that within the gospel itself are degrees of wisdom, and only some are ready to receive certain aspects of this wisdom – only the mature. If so, there is an analogy here with the Buddhist idea of skillful means - that the Buddha taught people according to their ability to receive the teaching. Paul’s most important point is that the wisdom of faith remains distinct from the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age.” Does Paul have in mind what passed for wisdom in imperial Rome? Again, in contrast to such wisdom, Christians have a wisdom from the Spirit, who “searches everything, even the depths of God.” In wisdom Paul seeks to interpret spiritual things “to those who are spiritual.” For Paul, this includes all who have received God’s Spirit. “We have the mind of Christ.”
In these verses, Paul continually and consistently contrasts Christian, spiritual wisdom with the wisdom of this age and its rulers. Anti-intellectualism is not his point. Paul cautions us against getting too caught up in the thinking of our age. The way of Jesus, the way of God, the way of life is often different from conventional wisdom. What parts of what pass for conventional wisdom might we need to question in our own lives and in our own society? Furthermore, while intellectual gifts can be gifts of God and God’s Spirit, sometimes our intellectual sophistication gets in the way. There is such a thing as paralysis by analysis – refusal or inability to act because we see the complexity of the world. We should see the world in its marvelous complexity, and act for justice and peace and reconciliation and love nevertheless.
I Corinthians 3
I Corinthians 3:1-23: In the beginning of this chapter, Paul does seem to indicate that he needed to offer his teaching at different levels. While the Corinthian Jesus community may have the mind of Christ, apparently, they also struggle with being “of the flesh.” He is not denigrating their bodily existence, but telling them that their thinking is still too influenced by what the culture considers wise. Paul is not focusing on a contrast between spiritual infants and spiritual elites, but encouraging the Corinthians to be more who they already are in Christ, and let go of what they used to consider wisdom. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” Petty jealousy and quarreling about whose teacher was the best are indications that they are not living out the transformed life they have begun in Christ. I have often argued that in our day and time our inability to manage conflict any better than the world around us weakens our witness as the church. Paul reminds the church that he and Apollos, and other teachers all worked to bring them closer to God, and that it is the work of God in their lives that matters, not who their teacher was.
Paul shifts from an agricultural image to a construction image. Each teacher in the church has a part of the job of helping build up the body of Christ – one may lay the foundation, and another build upon it. While each builder must choose carefully how to build, it is the building up that matters. Paul extends the image by imagining that different materials may be used in the work, and in the end the work will be tested. Paul utilizes a familiar image for testing – fire. Fire purifies metals, harden pottery, but burns away wood and straw. We seek to use the best human materials to build our lives in Christ. What sort of materials would you consider good materials for building a Christian life? Could this refer to certain virtues and practices? Christian teachers and leaders are to use the best materials possible to build up the life of the community. Paul’s use of this building image implies that both the teacher and the community will be tested.
Paul continues with the building image, but takes it in a slightly different direction. Here he explicitly tells the community that it is God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within them. He warns people against messing with the temple – jealousy and quarreling mess with the temple. Paul moves again to a warning about living as if the wisdom of this world is really wise. In Christ, they have life. They belong to Christ and to God – just as we do. We, too, are asked to build the Christian community.
I Corinthians 4
I Corinthians 4:1-13: If the Corinthian Christians have been fighting about their teachers, creating divisions and problems, Paul wants to again remind them about who their teachers really are, how they really function. Christian teachers are not out to gain followers, like perhaps some of the Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers might. They are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” What an intriguing description of the work of ministry – and it is work that belongs to both ordained clergy and those not ordained.
Paul sees himself as a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. It does not really matter to him if some Corinthian Christians do not think he is as eloquent and brilliant as some of the other teachers in the faith they have knows. He is trustworthy in carrying out his ministry. While Paul has a clear conscience, he holds out the possibility that there may be things in his life he could do better. This would hold true for Apollos and other teachers as well.
Given this understanding of the role of their teachers, the Corinthian Christians should avoid being puffed up. They have all received the gift of God’s grace and Spirit, and thus already have all they could want. They are rich in Christ. Or is Paul being sarcastic here? Could he be noting with sarcasm and irony – you are the rich ones, the wise ones, virtual kings, but we, your teachers about who you brag so much are hungry, poorly clothed, weak from work, homeless. Maybe there is a little of both. Maybe Paul is trying to remind them that they are rich in important ways, and therefore they should let go of seeing their importance by becoming jealous and quarrelsome.
I Corinthians 4:14-21: Paul’s cautionary words are intended to teach in hopes that the Christians will learn. He is not trying to shame them. He now assumes the role of caring father for his children in the faith. He wants them to imitate his Christian practice. In the world of the time, children learned by following the model of their parents. He will see how genuinely “powerful” some of these arrogant people are. The kingdom of God is not about talk, but about the power to transform, and be transformed.
The Corinthian Christians are in need of guidance. Paul offers them two options – he can come with a stick or with “love in a spirit of gentleness?” If they respond to this letter, he will come with love, but if they continue to struggle with factionalism, jealousy and quarreling, Paul may feel he needs to be firm (come with a stick). In our own lives, we may need something like the firmness of a stick sometimes, and at other times love in a spirit of gentleness. What do you tend to respond to? What do you need right now in your life?