What do you think of when I ask you what 1 Corinthians is about? You might think of a church with a lot of problems. The other thing you might think about is that the majority of the book seems to be dealing with answering the questions that the Corinthian Christians sent to the apostle Paul. Many of the chapters begin by saying, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” or the simple phrase, “Now concerning” (cf. 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; 16:12). But it is really easy to miss the purpose statements and key themes that are found in the New Testament. Books like 1 & 2 Corinthians are often avoided because we fail to recognize what the letter’s purpose is. When we do not know what the purpose is, then we will fail to read the letter in the proper light. For example, 1 John was written so that you may know you have eternal life (1 John 5:13). In the same way, the apostle Paul is writing to a messed up church that has a lot of problems and a lot of questions. How does a church get messed up like this? What is the key problem that has led to the troubles in the church? What is Paul going to teach them so that they can solve these difficulties? The answer to these questions is the theme of the book.
New Testament letters followed a general framework: author, recipients, salutation, thanksgiving, and then the body of the letter. Finding the beginning of the body of the letter can often help us see the primary message of the letter. In this case, the beginning of the body is found in 1:10.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV)
The overall goal for Paul in this letter is to end the divisions that exist among them. He wants to them to be united in the same mind and purpose. Verse 11 is important because it tells us how Paul came to this information. Chloe’s household has told Paul that there is quarreling among them. You will notice in verses 12-17 of the first chapter that Paul challenges the fact that these Christians are elevating other humans. What do they need to know to stop the fighting and become united? Listen to Paul’s key message in verse 28.
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:28–31 ESV)
Identifying The Problem (1:1-4:21)
This is the big deal. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is not about any human being. It is all about Jesus. The reason this church is having so many problems is because they are making life about themselves. They are boasting in themselves. They are elevating humans and making a big deal about people. They are full of selfishness and pride. So the whole book is going to deal with the areas of selfishness and move them to be selfless. This is what our series is going to be about for the next few weeks. God is going to move us from selfish to selfless. God is going to move us from pride to humility.
Paul has another way of saying this in the first three verses of chapter 3.
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1–3 ESV)
The problem is that they have not experienced life transformation. They are not spiritual but still of the flesh. They are showing through their pride, selfishness, and fighting that they are still obeying their flesh rather than walking by the Spirit. When we continue to follow our fleshly desires and do what we think is best, we cause all kinds of problems. Look at all the problems that are caused in the Corinthian church because they are not spiritual, but people still of the flesh.
The Consequences of Selfishness (5:1-14:40)
What is the problem recorded in chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians? Sexual immorality is being practiced and these Christians are glorifying the sexual immorality. They were not thinking spiritually. They were not elevating Jesus but elevating themselves. Verse 2 says that they were being arrogant about the sexual immorality among them rather than grieving the sin.
What is the problem recorded in chapter 6? Christians were taking other Christians to court. They are suing each other. This comes from selfish thinking rather than spiritual thinking. They see themselves as important and who should not be wronged or defrauded. They have failed to understand the radical transformation and cleansing that occurs when we come to Christ (6:9-11). But they think that they can do what they want (6:12) and do not understand that they were bought with a price (6:20). You are not your own. But they are selfish and do not understand this transforming truth.
What is the problem recorded in chapter 7? Marriage problems are the topic of chapter 7. Selfish thinking is traced all throughout this chapter. Paul has to tell them that in marriage, your body is not your own but you have given it to your spouse (7:3-4). Marriage is not about you. So he has to teach them to not divorce (7:10). God does not want our excuses, loopholes, or selfish thinking. We do not divorce. Thinking spiritually means we listen to what God tells us about marriage. But selfishness destroys marriages.
In chapters 8-10 we see Christians taking liberties that they think they have which is causing themselves to fall into idolatry or cause others to think that idolatry is acceptable. Paul gives the same message in 8:2, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” The same statement is made in 8:6 that everything is about God. We must not think about ourselves but seek the will of God and not use our knowledge to hurt other people (8:13).
In chapter 11 Paul reminds them of how men and women need to maintain their proper roles. I wish I had time to speak on this but it would take another 30 minutes. In short, this is about gender roles and show men to be godly men and women to be godly women. Also in chapter 11 are directions about the Lord’s Supper. Yet again we are reading about selfishness as these Christians are not waiting for each other and turning the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus into a common meal.
In chapters 12-14 we read about the problem of spiritual gifts in the church. Consider again that the problem is selfishness and pride. Some are saying that they are more important because they have better gifts. They think being able to speak in different languages is more valuable than any of the other spiritual gifts. So as Paul gives directions about spiritual gifts, what does he center the discussion on? In chapter 13 he centers the discussion on love. You need to love each other. Elevating yourself is not love. Love is patient and kind. Listen to this: love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is all about God. You lack love and that is why these Christians are having problems.
What It Is About (15:1-16:24)
So what does Paul move them to think about after dealing with all their problems that come from their selfishness and pride? Look at 1 Corinthians 15:1, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you….” He is going to put their attention back on Jesus and the power of his resurrection. We do not live for this life. We live for the coming resurrection of our lowly bodies. Jesus has been raised and we also will be raised. It is not about us. It is all about Jesus. It is only when we understand this that we will live as God wants us to live. Look at 1 Corinthians 16:14. “Let all that you do be done in love.” In 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 he tells them that they need to submit themselves to each other. We do not elevate ourselves. We act out of love and yield to each other. This is so important that he closes the book by declaring, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (16:22).
So I want us to consider one simple message. There will always be divisions, strife, fighting, jealousy, and problems if it is all about us. Everything in life and in our relationships will be messed up when it is about us. Marriage is messed up when it is about us. Families are messed up when we make it about us. Churches get messed up when we make it about us. Paul’s clear message in this book is that it is not about us. It is not about getting our way. It is not about doing what we want. The world does not revolve around us. We are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of the church. We are not thinking spiritually if we are making things about us.
We really need to stop and consider the destructiveness of selfish thinking and selfish living. We read about the church in Corinth and think how messed up they are. How did they get so messed up? How did things get to be so bad? It is really easy. Think about yourself. Elevate yourself. Make sure you have a say. Make sure you wield your influence. Get your way. In future lessons we are going to talk about how to become selfless. But for the moment we need to admit how easy it is to be selfish. It is natural to think about ourselves first. It is human to put ourselves first. But Paul is telling us that this is where our problems come from.
I submit to you that selfishness and pride are the problems for everything in life. Why are there divisions? Because people are thinking selfishly and arrogantly. They are not thinking about others. They are thinking about themselves. Why are there marriage problems? Why is there divorce? Why are there affairs? Why is there sexual immorality? Because people are thinking selfishly. Why are there problems in the church? Because people are thinking selfishly. In 1 Corinthians 3:3 Paul condemns them for behaving in a human way. God wants us to spiritual and not act fleshly. The apostle Paul said it like this to another group of Christians.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1–4 ESV)
In this Paul summarizes what the letter to the Corinthians is all about. To be of the same mind and have the same purpose so that there is not fighting or divisions, we must do nothing from selfishness or pride. We must be selfless.