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THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE1 Corinthians
By Edward (Les) Middleton
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Thomas Nelson, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSalutation and Thanksgiving
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
Before We Begin ...
Since Christians are already saved by their faith, how important is it, in your view, for believers to show their allegiance to Christ by their actions?
Paul's letters have endured through the ages in part because of his skill as a wordsmith. Even his initial greeting to the Corinthians is carefully constructed. In the first three verses, Paul introduces themes that will reappear in greater detail later in his text.
First Corinthians begins with a reminder of Paul's authority as a servant of God. In many ways, the entire letter feels like a disappointed father's stern but loving lecture to his children. It is appropriate, then, for Paul to open his remarks by reestablishing his position as an apostle carrying out the divine will of the Lord.
Fill in the blanks in the passage below, then answer the questions that follow.
Paul, called to be an __________ of Jesus Christ through the __________ of God, and Sosthenes our __________, To the __________ of God which is at __________, to those who are __________ in Christ Jesus, called to be __________, with all who in __________ place call on the name of Jesus Christ our __________, both theirs and ours. (1 Cor. 1:1–2 NKJV)
What gives Paul the authority to call himself an apostle of Christ (see Acts 9:5–6)?
Sosthenes probably recorded Paul's words on paper for him. He may have been the synagogue ruler publicly thrashed by the Jews as recorded in Acts 18:17. If so, what must have happened to bring him to the position of Paul's assistant?
By describing his readers as the "church of God," how is Paul subtly reminding the Corinthians of Him to whom they ultimately must answer for their actions?
Paul also says his readers are "sanctified in Christ Jesus"—in other words, set apart for the Lord. Have the Christian Corinthians demonstrated their standing before God in their behavior?
In verse 2, Paul emphasizes the unity of Christian believers in the phrase "with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ." Why was this message so needed by the Corinthians?
Paul offers one of his typical greetings in verse 3 of 1 Corinthians 1. In many ways, the twin themes of grace and peace summarize his entire message. Grace is perhaps God's most significant gift to humanity, while peace is the result for all who turn over their minds and hearts to Him.
Read verse 3, then answer the questions below.
In what ways is Paul modeling grace to the Corinthians?
What does Paul imply about the deity and equality of God and Jesus by linking them here?
"I Thank My God Always"
In verse 4, it may seem strange for Paul to offer thanksgiving to God for the deeply troubled Corinthians. But a closer examination of this verse and those that follow reveals that Paul's praise is less for the Corinthians and more for the God who is working daily in the lives of Paul's readers:
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:4–8 NKJV)
What specific manifestations of grace in the lives of the Corinthians does Paul mention in this passage?
What spiritual gifts is Paul referring to in the phrase "all utterance and all knowledge" (v. 5 NKJV)?
How was possession of these gifts a testimony of Christ?
What makes Paul so confident that the sin-plagued Corinthians will stand blameless before God at the return of Christ?
Paul closes this section with a brief yet powerful statement about the faithfulness of God and the calling of believers. His use of the word fellowship highlights the unity that the Corinthians lacked and provides a smooth transition from the grace God offered in the past and will offer in the future to what Paul's readers must do in the present.
Read the following verse, then answer the questions below:
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:9 NKJV)
Paul demonstrates an unshakable confidence in the trustworthiness of God. How strong do you think the Corinthians' confidence was in the faithfulness of the Lord?
Do you believe it is possible to achieve genuine fellowship with the Creator of the universe? Why or why not?
Pulling It All Together ...
Paul opens his remarks to the Corinthians by touching on several important themes: his authority as an apostle; his readers' status as "sanctified in Christ Jesus," that is, set apart for the Lord; the Corinthians' calling to be saints; and the unity that is theirs in Christ.
By his emphasis on God's grace—he mentions it twice in the first four verses—Paul subtly reminds his audience that every blessing comes not from their own abilities but from God.
Paul demonstrates the attitude the Corinthians should adopt by thanking God for them and for His work in their lives.
The apostle concludes his introduction with a strong statement about the faithfulness of God and the calling of believers to fellowship.
Chapter TwoDivision in the Church
1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21
Before We Begin ...
Do you ever find yourself quarreling with others? What usually leads to the disagreement?
The first problem addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians is division in the church. Apparently the Corinthians had begun to identify themselves with individual church leaders, placing their allegiance to men above their commitment to Christ. These wrong priorities led to quarrels among the believers.
What is particularly striking about these troubles in the early church is how relevant they are to us today. Christians still tend to place engaging and persuasive speakers, authors, and ministry leaders on a pedestal. Most of these men and women are genuine servants with hearts for the Lord—yet as we have seen all too often, even Christian leaders can fail publicly and spectacularly. No matter how spiritual or godly our ministry heroes seem to be, they are still imperfect human beings who fall short of the glory of the Lord.
Whenever we become too enamored of an individual believer, we run the risk of elevating that person above Jesus in our hearts and minds, just as the Corinthians did. Paul shows us that Christ alone is worthy of this kind of adoration. He is the only One who will never disappoint.
Read 1 Corinthians 1:10–17, then answer the following questions.
In verse 10, Paul makes his tenth reference to Christ in the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians. Why would he place so much emphasis on Jesus at the start of his letter?
Who are the four leaders Paul quotes the Corinthians as following?
Paul seems to find fault even with those who say, "I am of Christ" (v. 12 NKJV). How could those who followed Jesus also stir up dissension in the church?
Why does Paul say he was not sent to baptize? What does his statement seem to indicate about the emphasis the Corinthians put on those who performed the baptism ceremony?
Wisdom and Power
In this next section, Paul compares the wisdom of humanity to the wisdom and power of God. He shows that the Corinthians—and, of course, all Christians—must depend not on themselves, which will lead to destruction, but on the Lord.
In verse 19, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14, where God denounces the plan of the "wise" to seek an alliance with Egypt: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent" (1 Cor. 1:19 NKJV).
What does this verse say about God's attitude toward those who rely on their own wisdom?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:20–25, then answer the following questions.
In verse 20, "the wise" probably refers to a Greek philosopher; "the scribe" to a Jewish scholar trained to handle the Law; and "the disputer" to a Greek trained in rhetoric. All were professionals who attempted to solve problems through logic and debate. What does Paul say about the wisdom of this approach?
What are the two worldly viewpoints of the crucified Christ listed in verse 23?
What does Paul say about the "foolishness of God" in verse 25?
In verses 26–29, Paul draws out even more the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the Spirit. He also shows the prideful and arrogant Corinthians that without God they are merely foolish and weak.
Fill in the blanks below, then answer the questions that follow.
But God has chosen the __________ things of the world to put to shame the __________, and God has chosen the __________ things of the world to put to shame the things which are __________; and the __________ things of the world and the things which are __________ God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to __________ the things that are, that no __________ should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:27–29 NKJV)
By choosing the foolish, weak, base, and despised to reveal His truth, how does God ensure that He alone will receive the glory?
How is this approach consistent with the coming of a Messiah who in the eyes of the world is a lowly carpenter from Nazareth?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:30–31, then answer the following question.
According to verse 30, what four things did Jesus impart to humanity through His life and death on the cross?
Paul next addresses the futility of human wisdom by using his own ministry as an example. His preaching was unimpressive by human standards, yet through the power of the Spirit it moved the Corinthians to faith in Christ.
Read 1 Corinthians 2:1–5, then answer the following questions.
How does Paul describe his manner while preaching to the Corinthians (v. 3)?
How did Paul's lack of human persuasiveness become a demonstration of God's power?
Paul speaks here of a hidden wisdom available only to those who believe. Through the Holy Spirit, mysteries viewed as foolishness by the rest of the world are revealed to men and women of faith.
Read 1 Corinthians 2:6–8, then answer the following questions.
Who are the "mature" in verse 6?
What plan is at the heart of the "hidden" wisdom of God?
Read Paul's quote of Isaiah 64:4 below:
"Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor. 2:9 NKJV)
What things prepared by God is Paul referring to (see Eph. 1:3–14)?
In 1 Corinthians 2:10–16, Paul again emphasizes the contrast between the teachings of men and the teachings of the Holy Spirit, as well as humanity's dependence on the Spirit for knowledge and understanding. In the first four verses of chapter 3, Paul returns to his original theme in this section, dissension in the church, by pointing out that the Corinthian believers are still "babes in Christ" in terms of their spiritual maturity.
Read 1 Corinthians 2:10–3:4, then answer the questions below.
How is it possible for a believer to be both spiritual and carnal?
How does Paul express his disappointment with the Corinthians' lack of spiritual growth?
Misunderstanding the Ministry
In the first section of 1 Corinthians, Paul expressed his unhappiness with believers who had placed greater focus on church leaders than on Christ. Now he turns to the leaders themselves. Ministers in the church, after all, are servants accountable to God. Paul shows that in this role, they must be wary of cultivating the praise of men (as some of the Corinthians were apparently doing) rather than the approval of the Lord. Once again, Paul offers instruction that is just as valuable and needed today as it was two thousand years ago.
Read 1 Corinthians 3:5–16, then answer the following questions.
How does Paul discourage the idea of competition between leaders (vv. 5–7)?
What is the message to arrogant Corinthian ministers (v. 11)?
What can "wise builders" look forward to (v. 14)?
What is Paul's warning in verse 17?
Paul reemphasizes the foolishness of worldly wisdom in verses 18–20. He then makes a profound statement about "who belongs to whom" in the family of God.
Read 1 Corinthians 3:18–20, then fill in the blanks below and answer the questions that follow.
Therefore let no one __________ in men. For all things are __________: whether __________ or Apollos or Cephas, or the __________ or life or death, or things __________ or things to __________—all are yours. And you are __________, and Christ is __________. (1 Cor. 3:21–23 NKJV)
How is it that Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) belong to Paul's Corinthian readers?
How can the world, life, death, and things present and future also belong to the Corinthians?
Who makes this possible?
What is Paul saying about the foolishness of competition between ministers?
Paul elevates the role of minister to a steward in 1 Corinthians 4:1. In Corinth, a steward would have been a slave who administered the affairs of his master's household. Paul is pointing out the important responsibility of ministers within God's church.
Read 1 Corinthians 4:1–5, then answer the questions below.
What is Paul saying about the importance of others' opinions in verse 3?
Who is the only One competent to judge others?
The Cure for Division
Paul concludes his teaching on division in the Corinthian church by identifying the central issue, a common problem throughout human history: pride. He then presents a practical solution, which is to imitate his own example.
Read 1 Corinthians 4:6–13, then answer the questions below.
What source is Paul referring to by "what is written" (v. 6)?
Does Paul really believe the Corinthians are rich, wise, and strong (vv. 8–10)? What is he saying to them?
What picture does Paul present of the life of service for Christ (vv. 11–13)? How does this picture contrast with what the Corinthians seemed to expect?
Paul's last words on the subject of division are both an assurance and a warning. He urges the Corinthian believers to follow his example:
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:14–16 NKJV)
Finally, Paul concludes this section with a promise to return soon, including a clear indication that he will deal with the Corinthians' transgressions in one manner or another.
Read 1 Corinthians 4:17–21, then answer the questions below.
What is Paul saying about his source of power for both teaching and discipline (v. 19)?
Though Paul is willing to do whatever is necessary to move the Corinthians closer to Christ, which option would he clearly prefer (v. 21)?
Pulling It All Together ...
Paul opens this section with a discussion of divisions arising in the church because some believers are identifying themselves with individual leaders rather than as equal members of the body of Christ.
A comparison of worldly wisdom with the wisdom and power of God shows that believers must shift their focus away from self and toward the Lord.
We learn that the "hidden wisdom" of God is available only to believers who rely on the knowledge and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Like other believers, ministry leaders themselves are accountable to God. They must be wary of cultivating the praise of others rather than the approval of the Lord.
Paul identifies the root of the problem for division in the church: pride. He urges the Corinthians to imitate his example and warns them of the consequences if they fail to change their ways.
Chapter ThreeDisorders In The Church
1 Corinthians 5:1–6:20
Before We Begin ...
How tolerant do you feel believers should be toward the sinful behavior of others?
After dealing with dissension among Corinthian believers, Paul turns his attention to disorders within the church. Three in particular are addressed: the Corinthians' failure to discipline an immoral brother; their inability to resolve personal disputes in a godly manner; and their lack of sexual purity. Many of the same problems highlighted in the previous section—pride and a dependence on human wisdom—are behind these new issues as well. And as noted before, these are problems that continue to plague us today.
In the first verses of chapter 5, Paul seems taken aback not just by a case of incest involving a Corinthian believer, but also by the astonishing lack of response by the rest of the church. The Corinthians apparently believed that because God's grace is limitless, their tolerance of sin also should be limitless.
Read 1 Corinthians 5:1–8, then answer the following questions.
What does Paul mean by the words "puffed up" in verse 2?
How might delivering a sinner to Satan save his spirit?
Even a pinch of leaven can contaminate an entire loaf of bread. What or who is the "old leaven" Paul refers to in verse 7?
In his previous letter to the Corinthians that apparently was lost, Paul instructed his readers to distance themselves from sexually immoral people. He wasn't talking about the pagans of Corinth, however, as the Corinthian believers incorrectly assumed. Rather, Paul wanted them to cut themselves off from immorality in their midst.
Read 1 Corinthians 5:9–11, then answer the questions below.
Excerpted from THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE by Edward (Les) Middleton Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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