ST. PAUL'S FIRST LETTER TO THE CORINTHIANS
Part I: Addressing the Community's Problems
We come to You as children who need Your Son's Gospel of Salvation and the Eucharist to nourish us on our life's journey. Help us, Lord, to grow in the maturity of faith so that we can successfully navigate the perils and pitfalls of this earthly existence. Help us to remember that, by the Sacrament of Baptism, we are no longer the children of Adam but are now children in Your Holy Family of the Church and called apart from the world to live a spiritually holy life. Send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our lesson and to apply St. Paul's teaching to our lives. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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These people were carnal because they
were still slaves to the desires of the present age. Although they had been
baptized and had received the Holy Spirit, they were carnal because after their
baptism they had returned to their old lives, which they had renounced ...
Although they had been born again in Christ, they were not yet fit to receive
spiritual things. Although they had received the faith which is the seed of
the Spirit, they had produced no fruit worthy of God.
Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul's Epistles: 1 Corinthians
When St. Paul began to admonish the Church in Corinth, he immediately took them to the foot of the Cross to give them the proper perspective of the Godly "wisdom" of Christian life. In Chapter three, Paul writes that he knows the Corinthian Christians are looking for a more in-depth teaching on spiritual wisdom. He tells them, however, that the community's spiritual and moral failings demonstrate that they are not ready for that next step in their faith formation. Paul uses two clusters of metaphors ("flesh" and "spirit"; "milk" and "food") to present concepts to distinguish what Christian theologians will later call the "natural" and the "supernatural" person:
Chapter 3: Problems within the Community
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 ~ Children of the Flesh versus Children of the Spirit
1 Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, 3 for you are still of the flesh. While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving in an ordinary human way? 4 Whenever someone says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?
Paul presents a contrast between "spiritual people" and "fleshly people." By "the flesh" Paul is referring to human nature without the inspiration of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 7:1; Col 2:5).
Question: Why does Paul say that he could not preach a deeper
spiritual wisdom to them while he was with them, and what metaphor does he use
as an example of their unfitness for deeper spiritual preaching?
Answer: He tells them they were not sufficiently mature and compares them to infants can only drink "milk" and who were not ready for the "solid food" of a deeper teaching.
Like infants, the Corinthian Christians, although baptized and reborn in the Spirit, were still spiritually immature in their perceptions and in their behavior that was still too attached to their former lives. Proof of his charge, Paul says, is that they developed factions in expressing their attachments to those who ministered to them that caused jealousy and rivalries.
1 Corinthians 3:5-9 ~ The Role of God's Ministers
5 What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers, just as the Lord assigned each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. 7 Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor. 9 For we are God's co-workers; you are God's field, God's building.
St. Paul uses agricultural and architectural metaphors to explain the role of God's ministers. In other New Testament teachings, the "field" is often a metaphor for the world, but not in this case (for example see Jesus' parable of the weeds and the wheat in Mt 13:24-30, 38). Paul's fertile "field" is the Church (the "Kingdom of Jesus Christ) that God prepared for those who respond to God's grace in coming to faith in Jesus Christ:
God's ministers labor in service to the Church, and they are accountable to God.
Question: What are the "wages" God's ministers will receive in
proportion to their labor? See Rev 3:5.
Answer: They will receive a heavenly reward.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 ~ God's Plan for the Growth of the Church
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, 11 for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be received with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one's work. 14 If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. 15 But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
Paul continues with his "builder" metaphor. He laid the foundation of the community's faith in salvation through the Cross of Jesus Christ (verses 10-11), and Peter, Apollos, and others built upon it. St. Peter's influence is mentioned in the Corinthian community (four times in 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5). As the Vicar of Christ, there is evidence that St. Peter often traveled, visiting many Christian communities. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea writes in His 4th-century Church History that Pontus and the neighboring regions of Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Galatia were dependent on Peter' leadership.(1)And a letter from Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, in the mid-second century mentions Peter's connection to Corinth (Danielou and Marrou, The Christian Centuries, 51).
Question: What warning does Paul give in verse 10b-15?
Answer: The day will come when every Christian will be held accountable for the "work" he adds to the foundation of the Church. God will judge his "works." He will destroy by fire all the "bad works," and only the "good works" will remain.
Question: What is "the Day" in verse 13, and when will the
quality of our works be judged? See Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 9:17; 2 Pt 3:7;
Answer: Paul is referring to the Day of our Individual or Particular Judgment when every person who dies must stand before the judgment throne of Christ.
But Paul's focus is not on all the dead; his concern is with Christians and the final purification of God's fiery love in what the Church now calls Purgatory (CCC 1030-32). The key verse is: 15 But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. God's fiery love will destroy the bad "works," when the person is purified by God's fiery love. Therefore, the person will still have his/her salvation, and only the good "works" (if any are left) will go with them to Heaven.
The Catechism teaches: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven...The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned ..." (CCC 1030-31).
Before the advent of Christ, the souls of both the righteous and the wicked that died went to Sheol/Hades, the abode of the dead (CCC 632-33). There the righteous awaited the coming of the Messiah while the sinners suffered for their sins. See Jesus' description of Sheol/Hades in His parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. From the tomb, Jesus descended into Sheol/Hades where He preached the Gospel of salvation and led those souls who received Him out of Sheol and into Heaven (1 Pt 3:18-20, 4:6; Apostles Creed; CCC 635).
With the Resurrection of Christ, all blessings and judgments become eternal. All the wicked that reject Christ's gift of eternal salvation consign themselves to the Hell of the damned (CCC 1033-37). The righteous that die in a state of grace enter the gates of Heaven that had been closed since the fall of Adam (CCC 536; 1026). Sheol/Hades remains until the Last or Final Judgment when there is no longer a need for a final purification, and when it is emptied of its dead and destroyed (Rev 20:13-14). However, in the meantime, it continues as a place of purification by the fiery love of God for those souls destined for Heaven who are in need of a final purification for unconfessed venial sins or for atonement for mortal sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (CCC 1030-31). The Church now calls this state of final purification by the Latin word Purgatio, "cleansing, purifying" or in English, Purgatory.(2)
1 Corinthians 3:16-23 ~ The Christian is the Dwelling Place of God
16 Do not you know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. 18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: "God catches the wise in their own ruses," 20 and again: "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain." 21 So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, 22 Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world of life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, 23 and you to Christ, and Christ to God.
Paul urges the Christian community to live in holiness because they are individually and collectively the "temple of God." In verses 16-17, Paul refers both to individual Christians and to the Body of Christ that is the Church. The Church as God's temple is a favorite simile of St. Paul's in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16), in which he reminds the community that God the Holy Spirit dwells within the holy souls of the faithful believer in Christ Jesus. If harm comes to any of them, God will bring divine justice against their oppressor because they belong to Him.
We know through Jesus' teaching that the Holy Spirit dwells within the soul of the Baptized Christian. The souls of holy Christians become the tabernacles of the Most Holy Trinity; for where one person of the Most Holy Trinity is present so are the other two. In His last homily, on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus said: The Spirit of Truth ... dwells with you, and will be in you ... If a man loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (Jn 14:17-23). On the same subject, Pope Leo XIII wrote: "...by means of grace God dwells in the just soul as in a temple, in a special and intimate manner" (Divinum illud munus, 10).
In verses 18-21, Paul returns to his theme of human wisdom versus the wisdom of God. As an application of his teaching about true wisdom versus human wisdom, Paul writes to the Corinthians that the worst kind of foolishness is thinking one is wise by human wisdom which is foolishness to God. He quotes two Biblical passages, Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11 (verses 19-20), to support his claim that a human approach without God is doomed to failure. His argument is that the Christian grows wiser the more he identifies the desires for his life with God's divine plan. The Christian's outlook must be supernatural, realizing that Jesus works through our human weakness to reveal His divine glory (verses 18-20).
19 For the wisdom of
this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: "God catches
the wise in their own ruses," 20 and
again: "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain."
To support his point about the folly of human wisdom, Paul quotes from Job 5:13 (verse 19) and Psalm 94:11 (verse 20).
In verses 21-22, Paul returns to his argument in 1:10-13 and teaches that one consequence of worldly wisdom is to focus on the teachings of one particular teacher (citing himself, Apollos, and St. Peter to whom he refers to by the Greek transliterated Aramaic title Jesus gave Peter = "Rock," Cephas). In following only one teacher, one forgets that there are many true Christian ministers of the Gospel who dedicate their lives to serving the faithful (verse 21), and divisions within the community can arise. Not only do all the teachers belong to the Church and therefore belong to all Christians, but, by being adopted sons and daughters of God, every Baptized Christian has a share in Jesus' Lordship: for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world of life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God (verses 22- 23).
Chapter 4: No Place for Human Pride in the Life of the Servants of Christ
1 Corinthians 4:1-5 ~ God will Judge His Servants and Stewards
1 Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mystery of God. 2 Now it is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3 It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself. 4 I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. 5 Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.
St. Paul defines the role of all disciples of Christ as "servants of Christ" and "stewards of God's mysteries." This ministry puts those called as disciples beyond the reach of grudges and petty arguments. Christ entrusts His servants and stewards with His teaching and His Sacraments. They are honor bound to protect these treasures faithfully and, acting as Jesus' agents, they are not just to manage these gifts, but they must pass them on (verses 1-2).
In verses 3-5, Paul uses the imagery of the relationship between a servant and his master. Paul points out that a servant is answerable for his actions, but he is answerable only to his master, and only his master can judge him. Therefore, referring to the minister of Jesus Christ, St. Paul declares that the Lord is his judge because it is to Christ that his service is owed. Ultimately, all Christian ministers will have to answer to the Divine Judge who will issue His verdict. St. James warned that all teachers of the Word will receive a stricter judgment for any transgressions because of their knowledge and their accountability to Christ (Jam 3:1).
It is obvious that Paul is speaking from his experience. He is not just giving advice or taking the people of Corinth to task. He is speaking from a heart full of pastoral love and solicitude. We must not let petty disputes within the faith community divide us. If there are violations of Christian conduct, however, Jesus gave explicit instructions concerning what course of action to take and the authority of the Church to judge bad behavior ( Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:11-13 ).
1 Corinthians 4:6-8 ~ Paul and Apollos as an Example
6 I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, so that you may learn from us not (to go) beyond what is written, so that none of you will be inflated with pride [puffed up] in favor of one person over against another. 7 Who confers distinction upon you? What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it? 8 You are already satisfied; you have already grown rich; you have become kings without us! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you. [...] literal translation IBGE, vol. IV, page 456.
The words "to go" are not in the Greek text but are added to the translation to give a better sense of the message. In 4:6-8, Paul accuses the Corinthian Christians of the sin of pride (CCC 1866, 2014, 2317, 2514, 2540, 2728). Paul warns the Corinthians: so that you may learn from us not (to go) beyond what is written, so that none of you will be inflated with pride [puffed up] in favor of one person over against another.
Question: What is Paul's point and what is the "what is written"
to which Paul refers?
Answer: Paul's point is that the Corinthians should avoid speculating about the worth of those who ministered to them. He is probably admonishing them to focus on the message that Christ is the fulfillment of God's promises that are "written" in the Old Testament, which he has already quoted several times.
Whenever Paul uses the term "what is written," it always refers to a citation from Scripture. Since the beginning of the letter, Paul has quoted from the Old Testament in 1:12; 2:19-20, and 3:22, and all the quotes have to do with the common theme of God's transcendent wisdom in contrast to human wisdom of which the Corinthian Christians are prideful. Not only is Paul probably referring to the Old Testament, which he quotes thirty times in this letter, nine times using the introduction "it is written," but it is also possible that Paul is referring to what "is written" in the Gospel of Matthew. According to the Church Fathers, the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel written that they would have received by this time. Paul may also be referring to an earlier letter he sent the community (1 Cor 5:9).(3)
Paul makes it clear that he, Apollos, and other ministers have behaved responsibly. It is the Corinthians extensive pride and immaturity that have caused the factions in the community by exalting one preacher or another above others and also exalting themselves above their ministers. That they have been conceited enough to exalt themselves is a charge Paul makes disdainfully in a series of three rhetorical questions and a series of ironic remarks in verses 7-8 concerning their excessive pride.
Question: What are the three rhetorical questions Paul asks in
The three questions in verse 7 have theological implications beyond the pride of the Corinthians and concern the spiritual gifts:
However, the Corinthian boast as though these gifts are theirs through their own efforts and they "possess what they have not received." If they have received these charisms, Paul asks, why are they boasting as though it wasn't a gift of grace?
In cutting irony, Paul names three negative traits that stem from their pride and parallel the three questions:
Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might
become kings with you.
The contrast is between authentic and inauthentic kingship. For the Corinthians, their kingship like their riches and self-satisfaction is only an illusion. If they truly participated in the kingship of Christ the King, then Paul and the others would be reigning in unity with them.
St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "The Apostle here considers four types of pride: the first, when one thinks that what one has does not come from God [...]; the second, which is similar, when one thinks that one has done everything on one's own merit; the third, when one boasts of having something which one does not in fact have [...]; the fourth, when one despises others and is concerned only about oneself" (Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians).
1 Corinthians 4:9-13 ~ The Apostles: Fools for Christ
9 For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike. 10 We are fools on Christ's account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless 12 and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world's rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment.
When a Roman king or general returned home to Rome, he led his army in a triumphal procession in which he paraded his captives that were condemned to fight to the death in the arena with wild beasts. Paul compares the apostolic ministers to those captives. They belong to Christ the victorious King, and they are a spectacle to both the physical and spiritual world because God made them to be gazed at and made sport of in the arena of the world.
In this passage, Paul catalogs the difficulties of the apostle's existence in service to Christ and His Church, contrasting their sufferings with the Corinthians' overconfidence:
Question: What are the sufferings of Christ's
ministers that Paul lists in verses 11-13?
Answer: They go hungry, are thirsty, badly clothed, treated roughly/persecuted, homeless, slandered, treated like rubbish, and they work with their hands to support themselves.
St. Paul supported himself by the trade of tent-making/leather-working (Acts 18:3). He makes the point that he works to make his living here and in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-8. All Jewish males learned a trade in their youth, whether rich or poor or even those destined for the priesthood or scribal service (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan, 11).
After listing their hardships, Paul uses another triplet in explaining the kind of response he and the other authentic apostles give to those hardships.
Question: How does Paul contrast their bad
treatment with the responses of Christ's ministers?
We have become like the world's rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment.
In the final paradox of Christian ministry, Paul writes that worldly standards judge Christ's ministers as without worth. This view is in spite of the fact that, as Christ's emissaries, they hold the keys to eternity in their authority to forgive sins (Mt 18:18; Jn 29:22-23). Their continuing faith in the midst of hardships is in contrast to the Corinthians unfounded pride. Concerning the constant peril of the apostles in fulfilling their mission to preach the Gospel, in 2 Corinthians 1:9, he will write: ...we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, we had accepted within ourselves the sentence of death, that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
1 Corinthians 4:14-17 ~ Paul is the Corinthians
"Father in Christ"
14 I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. 16 Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord; he will remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach them everywhere in every church.
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he admonishes
them because he loves them and not simply to shame them.
Question: Paul uses what tender metaphor to assure the Corinthians of his affection?
Answer: He uses the metaphor of a father who not only gives his children life but also educates them, telling the Corinthians that he is a father to them in the same way.
The Corinthians may have many preacher-guides, but they will only have one father in Christ, and that is Paul. He gave "birth" to them by leading them to baptism in the family of God and founding their community. Then he educated them in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, like all children who should imitate the life of a good father, they should imitate Paul.
Paul plans to send them Timothy to help set the church in Corinth back on the path to unity. Timothy is a "beloved son" who imitates his "father," Paul. Like an elder brother, he will help his younger brothers and sisters in the Corinthian community by reminding them of the "ways in Christ" that Paul taught.
Question: Who is Timothy and what is his history
with Paul? See Acts 16:1-3; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4;
Rom 16:21; 2 Cor 1:1; 16:10-11;
Phil 1:1; 2:19;
Col 1:1; 1 Thes 1:1; 3:2;
2 Thes 1:1; Phlm 1;
1 Tim 1:2-3; 2
Timothy's name is Greek and means "to honor God." His feast day is January the 26th, and according to tradition, he was martyred at Ephesus.
1 Corinthians 4:18-21 ~ Paul's Promised Visit
18 Some have become inflated with pride, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing, and I shall ascertain not the talk of these inflated people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 Which do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit?
Evidently some of those "inflated with pride" deny that
Paul will come and he writes: 20 For
the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.
Question: What does Paul mean when he writes that the real power is the Kingdom of God? See 1 Cor 1:23-24 and 2:5.
Answer: Earlier Paul wrote that the Cross of Jesus Christ was the power of God shown in the conversion of the Corinthians. The salvation that Jesus brings is more than simply words; it is an event in real time with real consequences.
His words also carry a sense of the power of his authority as an apostle. It is a "power" Paul intends to use in bringing the Corinthian community back to humility and unity. His meaning is apparent in the next verse.
21 Which do you
prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit?
Paul mentions the "rod" as a symbol of parental discipline for both Gentile and Jewish fathers. The Book of Proverbs advises: He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him takes care to chastise him (Prov 13:24), and Folly is close to the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him (Prov 22:15).
Question: On what does the way Paul comes to them depend?
Answer: Whether he comes with a "rod" or "with love" depends on whether the Corinthian community responds to Paul's fatherly correction by repenting and changing their ways before Paul arrives.
Questions for group discussion:
Have you observed any factions or jealousies in your faith community that are similar to the problems Paul addressed in the Corinthian church? What can be done to avoid such problems? Every faith community struggles to resist the perceptions and accepted sinful behavior in the world. What can be done to help members of the congregation, especially the youth, resist the sins accepted by modern society; for example the sins of fornication and abortion?
1. The First Letter of St. Peter was addressed to the Christians of these regions and may be evidence that he visited them as Bishop Eusebius suggested. In the Paschal controversy (over when to celebration Easter), the Bishops of Pontus were in agreement with Peter, Bishop of Rome, and in disagreement with the Asiatic bishops (Danielou and Marrou, The Christian Centuries, 50; McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, 26).
3. See Paul's Old Testament quotes that begin with "it is written" nine times in 1:19/Is 29:14; 1:31/Jer 9:23; 2:9/Is 64:3; 3:19/Job 5:13 and Ps 94:11; 9:9/Dt 25:4; 10:7/Ex 32:6; 14:21/Is 28:11-12; 15:45/Gen 2:7; 15:54/Hos 13:14.
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Catechism references for this lesson (*indicates that Scripture is quoted in the citation):