The church at Corinth was established by the apostle Paul when he arrived in that ancient city in Acts 18. The social and moral environment he encountered there was very similar to our modern western society; Corinth was an very wealthy city, and the Corinthian people were famous in the ancient world for their obsession with luxury and decadence. They were also renowned for both religious “diversity” and for flagrant immorality. To describe someone as a “Corinthian” in that era was considered a huge insult. The letter we know as First Corinthians is Paul’s inspired response to questions some of the Christians there sent to Paul, and he addresses a number of practical issues within the church, from idolatry to marriage.
Paul began with a question about divisions within the congregation. It seems that some of the Christians had effectively divided the church into “proto-denominations” (“I am of Paul…I am of Apollos…,” etc.). It seems they were more focused on religion that pleased themselves than a faith that honors God. Paul emphasized in vv. 10-17 that there is no room for bickering and selfishness in God’s church because He has given us no foundation other than Christ. By asking “Is Christ divided?” he stresses that there is only one church purchased by the blood of Jesus. When Paul asked (rhetorically) “into whose name” the Corinthians had been baptized, he was actually pointing out that their baptisms had been by the authority of Jesus Christ – not in the names of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. This point does not in any way minimize the importance of baptism; rather, it stresses the ultimate authority for it (the command of Jesus the Christ). It also points out that baptism is only one of the necessary steps that lead to salvation.
The rest of chapter one (vv. 18-31) complements the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah: He had declared that “God doesn’t do things the way we think He should” (Isaiah 55:8). By pointing out that God did not choose “worldly-wise” or politically -connected people to be spokesmen for the gospel, Paul highlights the fact that its strength and appeal are the message itself (not the setting or “social standing” of those who proclaim it). Paul then goes on to emphasize in 1 Corinthians 2:5 that his own actions (at Corinth) simply reinforced the fact that every Christian’s faith should rest in God’s power instead of what seems “wise” from a human, earthly, worldly point of view.
Chapter three begins with Paul bluntly telling the Corinthian Christians that they were not spiritually mature (vs. 1). Though every child of God begins their spiritual life as a “babe” in Christ (Hebrews 5:13), most of these saints had failed to grow and mature in the faith, according to verse 2. Their immaturity was a contributing factor in the divisions that troubled them! By stressing his own “coordinated” work with Apollos (vv. 5-9), Paul shows the Corinthians that they should be trying to bring glory to God instead of attempting to gain glory for themselves. The ultimate “honor” they could enjoy – the opportunity to be “fellow-workers together with God” (vs. 9), as tools in His hands – would not be something the world would respect!
In 1 Corinthians 3:11 Paul returns to the “basic” principle that there is NO foundation for the church other than Jesus Christ. A religion based on any other person than Jesus cannot be the church of the new testament! Only by “building” upon the proper foundation can we have any hope that our “work” will survive into eternity, verses 12-15.