Lesson Four – The Major Thought Movement in I Corinthians

The Major Thought Movement in I Corinthians


Our personal preparation for reading a New Testament letter will be our greatest challenge for our study.  The original recipients were fully prepared to read Paul’s letters.  Their daily lives had been lived in what we learned about their situation in our historical analysis.  Paul had taught them for eighteen months about the content of the very things he called to their attention in his letters.  All they needed to do was to follow his style and ask the right questions about each thought (paragraph).

The question we want to ask: What is the writer saying right here?  How does it function in this letter?  This is the most important question in literary analysis.  We move from thought to thought as we read a letter.  The Corinthians would have had very little trouble deciding what Paul meant because they were prepared.  They were prepared historically.  They were not wise people by human standards but Paul claimed he did not write anything they could not understand (I Cor. 1:26; II Cor. 1:13).  They were prepared to read his literature.

Paul did not write to confound them; consequently, they did not need to seek out a scholar for help.  They did not need to read a commentary to understand the meaning of his letters.  If they had found a scholar, he or she would not have been able to help them (I Cor. 1:20).  These letters were spiritual letters (I Cor. 2:14).  Some of the Corinthian church members would need to apply the content of the letters to their own lives before they would have been fully prepared to understand all Paul wrote.  All of the things that made the letters easy reading for the Corinthian Christians are the task we face as we prepare ourselves for reading the same letters.  We want to read them from the same point of view they did, or at least from Paul’s view of their situation.

In Part I, we did a general historical analysis to learn what the main problem was in the church.  In Part II, we have attained a provisional idea of what he said to solve the problem.  Since Paul developed the technical word, boast, we investigated how he used it to make his points more powerful – more personal.  In that exercise, we became somewhat familiar with the “style of the writer.”

This lesson will help us track Paul’s major thoughts in I Corinthians.  Although, he responded to various inquiries, the major reason he wrote this letter was the division in the church.  The temple of God, which is the church of God on earth, cannot be divided (Eph. 4:3-6).  We will seek to understand how the other issues fit into what we have already determined about the letters.


As was suggested in the first paragraph of Part II, Lesson Two, there is one major thought in chapters one through four of I Corinthians; however, different aspects of this issue may be found in chapters five and six.  As a result of our historical analysis, we understood the church was dividing around certain significant characters.  The cause of the division had its roots in the boasting of some members.  They were boasting about issues based on, and measured by, the wisdom of men.

In our literary analysis, we learned Paul said to the church; “Do not go beyond what is written.  Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.”  I Cor. 4:6.  The message in the first four chapters is about the power for a believer in the wisdom of God.  By the wisdom of men, the wisest of wise did not know God.  Paul was privy to the secret wisdom of God because of Jesus Christ’s directives to him via the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:7, 11, 12).  What he said to this situation was dramatized and organized by Jeremiah’s line, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”  I Cor. 1:31.

Historical analysis of chapters five and six reveals a problem of sexual immorality in the church.  One case was of an unusual nature – and they were proud (I Cor. 5:1, 2).  In fact, we learn about the existence of a letter to the Corinthian church not recorded in the Bible (I Cor. 5:9).  It was about the fellowship of immoral people in the church.  This might be expected because of the simple reason; most of the members were Gentiles (I Cor. 6:9, 10; II Cor. 12:21).

Literary analysis: What Paul said to this situation in a paraphrase; “Sexual immorality is a sin against the physical body because a Christian’s body belongs to the Lord.”  I Cor. 6:12-20.  God’s Holy Spirit lives in the same body where a Christian’s spirit lives.  Consequently, this member of the congregation should have been handed “over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”  I Cor. 5:5.  This was for his personal salvation; however, his being removed from the fellowship of the church was for its salvation.  Paul explained, “Your boasting is not good.  Don’t you know that a little yeast works the whole batch of dough?”  I Cor. 5:6.  They knew this because they “cooked from scratch” in those days.  Paul gave his final word, “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slander, a drunkard or a swindler.  With such a man do not even eat.”  I Cor. 5:11.  This situation, or something similar, may have set the stage for the drama in the first major section of II Corinthians.

Another historical fact:  The members of the church were taking out lawsuits against one another.  What Paul said to this problem may cause us to do research about some things the Corinthian church members knew that we may not know.  One rule for reading a letter is that we must know what the recipients knew.   Evidently, Paul had taught the church that saints will judge the world and angels.  His answer to their lawsuit problem was communicated to them by six rhetorical questions (I Cor. 6:2-9).  He expected them to figure it out for themselves “why they were completely defeated” before they arrived at court (I Cor. 6:1-8).  The fellowship of the church was threatened by division because of boasting about human wisdom. Their non-spiritual comprehension of themselves as brothers and sisters in God’s eternal kingdom led to treating one another as people in the world behave.  Paul’s warning:

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have.  For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.  What do you prefer?  Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?  I Cor. 4:18-21

The failure of the church to discipline all ungodly members was a contributing factor to their division.  Paul could not address them as spiritual people.  If the church had not moved with discipline of sinners in the church before Paul wrote II Corinthians, this may have been an issue in the first seven chapters.

The balance of I Corinthians is dedicated to several topics: Someone asked a question about marriage (chapter 7).  Then he took up the issue of eating food offered to idols (chapters 8 and 10).  Mostly, he dealt with ethical problems except for the doctrinal problem about the resurrection of the dead in chapter fifteen.  In our study of each of these individual topics some historical analysis will be necessary on our part, except in chapter seven.

There is no indication that marriage was a problem in the church.  Paul understood God created mankind with certain innate needs – sex is one of them (I Cor. 7:1-5).  He knew people had an innate need for food (I Cor. 6:13; 11:34).  God and Jesus understood about inherent needs for both the inner and outer man of each individual (Matt. 6:25-27).  People cannot live very long without food and shelter.  They satisfy our security need of the outer man.  The need for security of our inner man is equally important.

He answered the question about marriage by calling their attention to the fact that we are living in the last days.  The world is passing away (I Cor. 7:29-31; 10:11).  Since each day may be the last day, why not give full time to saving humanity from boasting about the outer aspect of a human being (I Cor. 7:32-35; II Cor. 4:16)?  Paul thought the energy generated by a woman or man’s innate need for sexual relationships could be redirected, or sublimated.  Their energy could be used for other worthwhile purposes.  He did say this was his own idea (I Cor. 7:6, 7, 40).   He knew it had worked for Jesus and so far it had worked for him.  A person’s mind must be in control of his or her will to manage innate sexual passion in the absence of a mate.  Otherwise, they should get married – but only in the Lord (I Cor. 7:9, 37, 39).

“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  I Cor. 8:1.  This statement introduces the subject of “Christian freedom.”  The structure for the content of Paul’s message is found in chapters eight, nine and ten.  Please note that he pre-empted this subject while dealing with sexual immorality in I Corinthians 6:12.  He repeated the same declaration in this section but with a different conclusion:

‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is beneficial.  ‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is constructive.  Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.  I Cor. 10:23, 24

Here is another case where we must know what the recipients knew in order to understand what Paul meant by “everything is permissible.”  If a person does not have a clear understanding of the difference in the law of life and the Law of Moses, he or she will not know what the Corinthians were taught by Paul (II Cor. 3:1-4:6).  He assumed they understood the law of life; therefore, he did not explain his freedom declaration.

In cases where the reader of a letter does not know what the recipients knew, they must research this subject by a study of other scriptures.  The writer of this lesson offered this study in a book entitled, Romans.  See Part III, Lesson Eight, “The Law of the Spirit of Life.”   In this lesson to the Corinthians, we are merely moving from thought to thought in preparation for an in depth study in future lessons in this series.  We study to understand the meaning of the content after we gain a provisional view of what was going on where the letter was received.

Paul’s statement, “Now about food sacrificed to idols,” does not mean this was happening in the church, but the potential was certainly present.  Paul took this opportunity to write on the subject of freedom.  Each Christian enjoys absolute freedom for his or her “self,” regardless of our physical circumstance (I Cor. 7:22, 23).  However, our freedom ends where a weaker member’s conscience is at risk.  In this discussion Paul gets us back to the fellowship of the church; “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”  I Cor. 8:12.  The conclusion is that our freedom ends when we sin.

Again, to fully understand this chapter we need to know what the recipients had been taught about the conscience of mankind.  Every person has a conscience but many do not know what activated it, or how it works after it matures with their mind.  We know Paul taught the Corinthians about these details because he mentioned the conscience often without explanations.

In chapter ten, verse 23 and following, Paul is back to “food sacrificed to idols.”  The context has shifted to a Christian’s relationship with an idol worshiping society outside the church; however, he is still relating this to freedom and our individual conscience.  Christians can feel free to have a fellowship meal with unbelievers.  We “bracket” our list of good and evil about eating food offered to an idol; that is, we do not consider the meal as being offered to idols.  If our host makes a point about the food being offered to an idol, we do not eat.  The sacrifice is nothing and the idol is nothing but pagan worship is to demons, not God (I Cor. 10:14-22).   We “un-bracket,” that is to say, we re-activate our list of good and evil.  We do not violate the conscience of the host by leading him or her to think they are worshiping the God we worship – the God who created mankind.

“Am I not free?”  This is the first of seventeen rhetorical questions Paul “fired off” in I Cor. 9:1-14.  If we did not already know what the Corinthians knew, we might think this tirade was unusual.  The church knew they had not financially supported Paul, or his co-workers, during the one and one half years they taught the gospel to them.  We know it because we did our exegetical work like every student of the Bible must do (II Cor. 11:7-9).  After making this point for the sake of “those who sit in judgment on me,” Paul said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave of everyone, to win as many as possible.” I Cor. 9:19.

He became all things to all people except he never “bracketed” God’s laws of life.  This means he never set it aside while he assumed fellowship with the lawless.  He was always under Christ’s law (I Cor. 9:21).  In Christ we can find the law of life (John 1:4).  Paul’s self, or inner man, was free to grow like Christ, but he knew he could lose this freedom if he did not “beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  I Cor. 9:27.

“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  I Cor. 11:3.  People have been pecking at this divinely inspired “peck order” with the wisdom of man – probably, since Paul penned it.  They have poured out the “full bowl of the wisdom of man” on this issue in our time.  Many appear to have come to the conclusion that “this scripture does not mean what it says.”  There is not much chance of teaching people what the Bible says when they come to this conclusion.  So we will let Paul say what God has declared He meant in I Corinthians 11:2-16 and develop a lesson later.

What we learned in our historical analysis of I Cor. 11:17-33 is that the church did come together to take the Lord’s Supper.  They probably had this meeting on the first day of the week.  Paul had surely preached to the church at Corinth what he practiced with the church at Troas (Acts 20:7).  So the church knew the theology of the Lord’s Supper and they performed the practice.  Paul said their ethics were deplorable.  Their meetings did more harm than good.  He commented that he heard “there are divisions among you.”  I Cor. 11:17.  He may have thought their division led to other problems.  They needed to get the theology, ethic and practice working together on divine principles.  His final statement was “And when I come I will give further directions.” I Cor. 11:34.

“Now about spiritual gifts, brothers I do not want you to be ignorant.  You know when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.”  I Cor. 12:1, 2.  This introduced the content in chapter 12, 13 and 14.  This content reveals the key for solving the division in the church.  The church members are people who have been called out of the world culture; “And were all given the Spirit to drink.” I Cor. 12:13.  The church moves with one another with the cohesiveness of a physical body (I Cor. 12:12-27).  The Corinthian church was led by men who were endowed with special gifts from the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:27-31).  The foregoing describes the church about which Paul taught the Corinthians; however, they needed to have the love for one another he described in chapter thirteen to be this church.

In I Cor. 12:1-11, Paul identified nine super special gifts that certain members of the church had received at some time after their conversion to Christ.  At the same time he carefully connected each of the gifts to their source, the Holy Spirit.  Next, he fits this all neatly into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:12-26).  To make it easy to understand he used the human body as a model for understanding the church of God.  “God arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be.”  I Cor. 12:18.  This applies to the human body and Paul may have applied this to the first century church.  Spiritual gifts were given to men just as God wanted them to maintain the church in the absence of the New Testament.  They should have used the gifts as God intended just as we use the parts of our body.

In verse twenty-five, Paul shifts from the members of the physical body to the members of the church, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have the same concern for each other.”  Although these “now about” subjects may appear to be incidental, he makes them function to help solve their problem of divisionNote how this verse and the following verse introduced the content of chapter thirteen:  “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”  Love is the final solution to all divisional problems.  But before he goes to the love chapter he reveals how some of these people with special gifts are functioning in the body right along with every other member (I Cor. 12:27-30).  He used another one of his famous rhetorical questions; “if they were all one part, where would the body be?” I Cor. 12:19. 

“And now I will show you the most excellent way.  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  I Cor. 12:31, 13:1.  Of course, the most excellent way is love because “God is love” and mankind’s spirit is made in the likeness of God.  This is worked out in chapter thirteen.

One cause of division in the church has been described in chapter fourteen.  Paul helps us with our historical analysis:  “Brothers, stop thinking like children.  In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”  I Cor. 14:20.  The members who had the gift of speaking in tongues appear to have been guilty of creating the most disturbances.  What Paul said to their situation was:

If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.  If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.  Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.  But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.  I Cor. 14:37-40.

“Now, Brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.” I Cor. 15:1.  The reason for Paul’s summary statement in I Corinthians 15:1-11 may have been prepared to function in more ways than summing up and closing out this letter.  The church needed to think about “what they had received and on which they had taken a stand” in relation his rhetorical question; “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” I Cor. 15:12.  In his preceding statement he reminded them “to hold firmly to the word I preached.”  He had preached Jesus was raised from His physical death.  Finally, he reminded the church, “this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

This issue was different from the other “now about” topics.  They were subjects about spiritual growth issues.  This related to false theology.  Theology is very close to being synonymous with “the faith.”  Jude 3.  Paul dedicated the remainder of the fifteenth chapter for helping the church think through his rhetorical question about the resurrection of the dead.  Thank God for Paul’s help for the Corinthians.  It helps us to understand our resurrection from the dead in our new spiritual body and how all this relates to our inheritance of the kingdom of God.  This is a classic piece of divine literature!  Faith in this theology frees faithful Christians from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14, 15).

“Now about the collection for God’s people.” I Cor. 16:1.  With this “now about” statement Paul begins to close out this letter.  We will hear more about this benevolent program in our next lesson.  Again, we will move with Paul’s major thoughts as we follow his style.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why should our preparation for reading I Corinthians be as equal as possible to the original recipients’ preparedness?
  2. What was the first major thought in I Corinthians?
  3. How may chapters five and six be a continuation of the processes of this first thought?
  4. Why might we expect that sexual immorality was a constant problem in the Corinthian church?
  5. Why was Paul being extra persuasive about living the single life?
  6. List the subjects Paul used for his teachings about a “Christian’s freedom.”
  7. How did Paul blend the subject of a “weak conscience” with a “Christian’s freedom?”
  8. What does it mean to “bracket” your knowledge of good and evil?
  9. How extensive did Paul make use of the literary tool of rhetorical questions in chapter nine?
  10. Paul was willing to become all things to all people.  Name one thing he never “set aside” in order “to become all things,” especially to the Jews who believed in the Law of Moses?
  11. What did the Corinthian church have right and where did they fail in their partaking of the Lord’s Supper?
  12. List three attributes that are unique to the member’s of God’s church.
  13. What is the “most excellent way” for overcoming all the divisional problems of mankind?
  14. How is the content of chapter fifteen different in its application from the “now about” issues?

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