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Summary of 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul who is called to be an Apostle, and Sosthenes, write to the Church of God at Corinth, to persons made holy in Christ. He wishes them grace and peace from the Father and Jesus Christ. He rejoices that they are made rich in every word and knowledge. They are lacking in nothing, as they wait for the revelation of the Lord at the end. He will make them strong so as to be without reproach on the day of the return of the Lord. God Who is faithful will do this.
Comments on 1:1-9
Paul calls them holy -- we know that does not basically mean high on the moral scale -- the Corinthians were far from that, we will soon see, for Paul spends four chapters correcting their factionalism, and then still other faults. He seems to have had more trouble with them than with any other community. But Hebrew qadosh is the word in Paul's mind -- it means consecrated to God, that is, by coming under the new covenant. He says too they are rich in every word and knowledge -- these seem to be charismatic gifts, of which he will speak more in chapters 12-14.
Very importantly, we notice he tells them they can be sure that God will keep them free of reproach until the parousia, the return of Christ, for God is faithful to His promises in the covenant. This means that as far as God is concerned, He will offer them the grace of final perseverance -- of course, they could and might reject that, and so not have it. Therefore the Council of Trent taught (DS 1541): ". . . about the gift of [final] perseverance . . . let no one promise himself anything with absolute certitude, even though he should place most firm hope in the help of God. For God, if they do not fail His grace, will complete the good work, bringing about both the will and the doing." We must understand the Council in the light of the historical situation. Trent was writing against the unfortunate mistake of Luther who taught an infallible salvation, if one once and for all "took Christ as his personal Savior," or "made a decision for Christ." That is, if one came to believe Christ had died for him. Then, no matter how much he had sinned in the past, was sinning, or would sin, the infinite merits of Christ would always outbalance the sins. Hence, salvation would be infallible, with no need of repentance, penance, confession or anything else.
In contrast, Trent said that God would complete the work He had begun (an echo of Philippians 2:6) -- which implies of course that He will offer the grace of perseverance -- but that no one can be sure he will have that grace, since he, the human, may not accept it, may reject it.
Summary of 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
He urges them in the name of the Lord that they all agree completely, and avoid factions. They should rather be fully united in the same thinking, in the same views. He says he learned through messengers sent from Chloe that there was strife among them. He means: some say they belong to Paul, some to Apollos, some to Kephas, some to Christ.
To counter this foolish idea he asks: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? So he is glad he baptized no one there except Crispus and Gaius, so no one could say they were baptized in the name of Paul. Then he recalls: he also baptized the household of Stephanas. And he begins to wonder: perhaps he did baptize a few others too.
The mission Christ gave him was not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel. He was not asked to do that in an eloquent expression of wisdom. Then it might seem that the cross of Christ was not the power. For those on the road to eternal ruin, the doctrine of the cross seems like foolishness, but to those who are on the road to salvation -- to Christians -- it is the power of God.
Comments on 1:10-18
Greeks then were much inclined to bickering. The Corinthians were boasting of belonging to special factions within the Church -- some to the faction of Paul, some to that of Apollos, some to that of Kephas. We do not know if he had in mind a Christ faction, or if he was thinking of Christians who refused to join any faction, saying: We just belong to Christ. We do not know. The suggestion has also been made that they might have been former Jews who had known Christ on earth.
Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, converted at Ephesus, who had been trained in the mode of Scriptural study practiced by Philo (allegorical). He was an eloquent orator.1 Kephas of course is the Aramaic form of Peter, which Paul usually prefers.
Some, especially some Protestants, think the Holy Spirit dictated, word by word, the text of Scripture. This is not true, and we can see it especially in this passage, where Paul's memory wakes up in three stages -- at first he baptized only Crispus and Gaius, then he recalls the household of Stephanas, then he says he may have baptized some others too.
When Paul says that Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach, we need to recall that Hebrew and Aramaic both lacked the degrees of comparison of adjectives and adverbs, such as: good, better, best; much, more, most; clear, clearer, clearest. We would have written: He sent me mostly to preach, in a lesser degree to baptize.
His comment that he was not asked to have eloquence and wisdom, but just to preach the cross suggests there may be two things in Paul's mind. First, he did try to be very clever in his speech on the Areopagus in Athens.2 It failed badly, and so Paul may have decided not to try that again. But, much more, he does insist often that he wants their faith to rest not on any human eloquence, but on the power of Christ. Let us imagine Paul coming into sophisticated Greece. His training as a Rabbi would have been scorned. He was a nobody. If he had nothing but his own unsupported word he would have gotten nowhere. So he depended on displays of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Paul very explicitly appeals to these displays in 1 Cor 2:4-5.
Paul says that the doctrine of the cross was foolishness to the Greeks. We have grown up with the doctrine of the Incarnation and the cross, and it never did have a great impact on us, the way it did when it first burst upon the world. Plato, in his Symposium, 203, had said that no god associates with humans. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics 8.7, said no friendship is possible between a god and a human -- the distance is too great. Plato did have a lofty concept of the great God, but also believed in much lesser gods. Aristotle's concept was lower than that of Plato. If they thought such gods would not stoop to associate with us, what would they think if they heard that the almighty God actually became man! Even further, what would they say if they heard that He consented to be put to death in so horrible and disgraceful a manner! No wonder the doctrine of the cross sounded like foolishness to Greeks. Yet many, who did not reject the grace offered to them, did embrace it. The problem was similar for the Jews. In fact, in Deuteronomy 21:23 they had read: "Cursed be anyone who hangs on the wood!"
Summary of 1 Corinthians 1:19-25
Scripture (Isaiah 29:14) says that God will destroy the wisdom of those who are wise, and frustrate the understanding of those who seem intelligent. Paul asks: Where does the wisdom of the wise man get him? What about the scribe (learned man)? What about the searcher (for wisdom or argument) in the worldly sense? God has shown that what the world calls wisdom is insufficient, even foolish, compared to divine wisdom. The world tried to understand God by wisdom, but failed. So it pleased God to save those who believe through preaching that seems foolish. The Jews want miracles as signs, the Greeks want the wisdom of philosophy. In place of those, we preach a Christ who was crucified -- a scandal to the Jews, foolishness to the gentiles. But to those who are called to the faith, both Jews and Greeks, this is Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the things of God that seem foolish are wiser than humans, and the things that seem like weakness (in letting Christ be crucified) are stronger than we are.
Comments on 1:19-25
Paul becomes almost lyrical in this beautiful passage. He plays on the paradox that what seems foolish on God's part is supreme wisdom, while human wisdom in comparison is nothing, it is not enough for salvation. And what seems like weakness on the part of God is actually supreme strength.
In this sense God wipes out the wisdom of the wise: He shows how scant human wisdom is compared to divine wisdom.
The Greeks want wisdom -- we give them Christ, the supreme wisdom of God. The Jews want signs, miracles: we give them Christ, the miracle of the power of God. Paul makes use of the double meaning of Greek dynamis, (plural dynameis). The singular means power, the plural means displays of power, miracles. In Christ we see the power of God supremely. But it is only those called to the faith that see it rightly. That word call, as commonly used by Paul, means God's call to humans to be members of His people of God, the Church, in faith. God offers this grace to all (see 1 Timothy 2:4), but not all accept. (Some do not accept because of mental blocks: they perceive subconsciously that if they accepted it, that would call for changes in their way of life which would be quite unacceptable to them.)
Summary of 1 Corinthians 1:26-30
He urges them to look at those called with them into the church at Corinth: not many whom the world considers wise, not many powerful men, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen the ones the world would consider foolish, to make the wise ashamed; He has chosen the weak ones, to shame the strong. He has chosen those without nobility, those who are scorned, those who are nobodies -- so no flesh may boast in the sight of God. It is as a result of God's choice that you are members of Christ. He became wisdom and justice, and sanctification and redemption for us. Therefore, as Scripture says: let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.
Comments on 1:25-30
They were proud of being in a special faction, and, we may assume, proud they got into the Church -- they are smarter than the dumb pagans, they would think. In contrast, Paul tells them to look at what kinds of members their church has: people whom the world would consider of little or no account. And yet, God will use them to show up the worldly wisdom of those the world calls wise -- for they have Christ, who is the wisdom of God, they have the wisdom of the cross. He became holiness and justice and wisdom and redemption for them. Since they are His members, they share in these. So while they have nothing to boast of that they themselves have produced, they can boast of what they have that God has given them, without merit on their part. For it is because of God, not because of their own qualities, that they got into the Church.
We could add, in regard to justice, the thought of Romans 3:21-30 where Paul speaks of the redemption as a means of showing that God is always concerned with what the moral order requires. During the Old Testament period, He did not provide a full rebalance of the scales of the objective order. But in Christ He did that, superabundantly. For there is an objective moral order. Of it Pope Paul VI wrote: "Every sin brings with it a disturbance of the universal order, which God arranged in His inexpressible wisdom. . . . So it is necessary for the full remission and reparation of sins . . . not only that friendship with God be restored by a sincere conversion of heart, and that the offense against His wisdom and goodness be expiated, but also that all the goods, both individual and social, and those that belong to the universal order, lessened or destroyed by sin, be fully reestablished, either through voluntary reparation . . . or through the suffering of penalties."3 An ancient Jewish Rabbi, Simeon ben Eleazar, gives a helpful comparison: "He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe to him. He has tipped the scales to the side of debt for himself and for the world."4 The sinner takes from one pan of the scales what he has no right to: the scale is out of balance. It is God's Holiness that wants it rebalanced. The sinner can begin to rebalance by giving back stolen property, or by giving up a pleasure instead of the pleasure he took illegitimately. But he can only begin: for even one mortal sin is infinite, since the Person offended, God, is infinite. So if the Father willed a full rebalance -- He did not have to do that -- it could be had only by sending a divine Person to become man. That Person could generate an infinite value to fully rebalance. Then, by making us His members, it would count frfor us.5
At the end, Paul loosely quotes Jeremiah 9:21-30: "But rather, let him who glories, glory in this, that in his prudence he knows me, knows that I the Lord bring about covenant-fulfillment, justice and uprightness on the earth."
As we noted, Paul implies they were called to full membership in the Church not because they were better, but because they were weaker and needed more help. We think of an ordinarily good family in which most of the children are healthy, but one is sickly. That one gets extra help of course. (We spoke of full membership to imply that there is a lesser degree of membership. On this we will speak in connection with Romans 2:14-16).
Other Scriptural passages suggest that God in general calls people to the Church not because they are better but because they need more help, being more resistant to grace. Thus in Ezekiel 3:5-7 He told the prophet: "I am not sending you to a people with obscure speech and difficult language. . . . If I were to send you to these, they would listen to you; but the house of Israel will refuse to listen to you, since they will not listen to me. For the whole house of Israel is hard of brow and obstinate in heart." So Ezekiel, in 5:6, referring to Jerusalem, said: "She [Jerusalem] has changed my judgments into wickedness more than the gentiles, and my statutes more than the countries around her."
The book of Jonah gives us the same implication. The Assyrians in Nineveh, a cruel people, readily did penance at his preaching. But when prophets went to the holy people of God, they had a hard time, and were sometimes in danger of death. In fact, in the Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael6 we read words put into the mouth of Jonah: "Since the gentiles are more inclined to repent, I might be causing Israel to be condemned [by going to Nineveh]."
In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) we see two officials of the holy people of God pass by the wounded man, but a Samaritan takes good care of him.
Again, in Luke 17:11-19 we read of the cure of ten lepers. But only one came back to say thanks, and he was the one who was not a member of the holy people of God.
In Matthew 11:21 Jesus is very displeased at the response of Chorazin and Bethsaida and says: "If the wonders done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
It is obvious: all the above support the implication we saw in St. Paul: the holy people of God are more resistant, in general, to God's grace than are the outsiders.