To put it kindly: the church at Corinth was a mess. Riddled with disunity, boasting in its own wisdom, celebrating sin, and suing one another, this church had a reputation. Paul received a discouraging report about the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11). Spiritually, this church was not doing well, so God the Holy Spirit prompted Paul to write this letter to correct this erring church—and erring churches to come. He wrote to remind them of the unity believers have in Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to provide pastoral wisdom for practical and theological issues in the church. Like a true pastor, though, Paul identifies the problem underneath the problems. The Corinthians did not begin randomly splitting into factions or treating one another poorly. Something was happening in their hearts to cause their disunity. Paul began spiritual surgery on the Corinthians with this letter.
The first four chapters of Paul’s letter reflect on what a Christian should prize: the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God is not a force but a person: Jesus Christ, made known to us by God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:12). The Corinthians were uninterested in this wisdom—they were more interested in their own ability and skill, and the wisdom of the world. This pride caused serious disunity in the church. The Corinthians boasted about which teacher they followed, ignoring the Teacher (God himself!) behind the teachers. In their pride, the Corinthians had forgotten about God’s grace and power.
Through Paul, God reminds the Corinthians that there is no room for boasting in the Christian life. The Corinthians should not be fascinated with cultural demonstrations of power because “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23 ESV). The centerpiece of the biblical faith is a crucified Messiah. That doesn’t exactly line up with the world’s understanding of power and wisdom. And yet, it is through this crucified Messiah that God demonstrates his power and wisdom in saving sinners from their sin.
Christianity is not a religion for the proud, as Paul reminds them: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The answer is nothing. Everything they have received is because of God’s kindness—not because of themselves. What reason do they have for pride?
This church’s pride manifested in a variety of ways. The Corinthians boasted about and celebrated sexual immorality in their church (1 Corinthians 5:2). They were suing one another (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), disregarding and demeaning their brothers and sisters’ tender consciences (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), greedily getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:21), and shaming the poor among them for having less (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul treats each of these in turn, reminding them that the love God calls them to radically reorients their lives away from these vices.
You may have heard the much beloved “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13 shared at a wedding. This isn’t wrong to do, but it does obscure Paul’s point a bit. Remember, Paul writes this letter to a church, to encourage the Corinthians to give up their pride and choose love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV). Paul has already identified this church as boastful and arrogant—now he’s telling them they’re unloving! This passage is as much a rebuke to the unloving and proud Corinthians as it is a reflection on the nature of love.
1 Corinthians shows us that God cares about the spiritual health of local churches enough to calls out our pride and identify the ugly sins we keep in the dark. God is not content to simply let sin fester and grow in his churches. He wants his people to repent of their arrogant ways, and to grow in love for him and one another.
What do you boast about?
Do you desire a humble heart? Open 1 Corinthians, and let God start his loving work, shining light into your darkness and turning your pride to love.