The church at Corinth was established by the apostle Paul when he arrived in that ancient city in Acts 18. The environment he encountered there was actually very similar to modern western society; Corinth was an unusually wealthy city, and the people there were very focused on the trappings of luxury and decadence. Corinth was famous throughout the ancient world for both religious diversity and for flagrant immorality. For most people in that era, to be called a “Corinthian” was an immense insult. The letter we know as First Corinthians was Paul’s inspired response to questions some of the Christians had asked, and Paul also addressed many “practical issues” that had come up, ranging from idolatry to marriage.
In this second letter, Paul begins by dealing with a question about divisions within the congregation. The situation among these Christians had deteriorated to the point that some of them had effectively divided the church into several “proto-denomina-tions” (“I am of Paul…I am of Apollos…,” etc.) because they were more interested in a religion that catered to their own desires than they were in honoring God. In response, Paul emphasized in chapter 1:10-17 that there is no room for such bickering and selfishness in God’s design for His church, because He provided no foundation other than Christ. By asking “Is Christ divided?” he drives home the point that Jesus purchased only one church with His blood. By asking “into whose name” the Corinthians had been baptized, Paul is pointing out that everything about their salvation – their baptism, and their standing as saved people – rested on the authority of Jesus Christ, and not on who their favorite preacher was! Paul is NOT minimizing the importance of baptism here, but stressing the ultimate authority for it (Jesus the Christ). In doing this, he also points out that it 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, who declared in Isaiah 55:8 that God “doesn’t do things the way we think He should.” By pointing out that God did not choose “worldly-wise” or politically-connected people to publicize the gospel, Paul highlights the fact that the gospel’s strength and appeal are in the message itself – not in the setting or social strata of those who proclaim it. It might seem “wise” (to us) for God to present the gospel in a way that appeals to human vanity, but Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 2:5 that his own actions (at Corinth) had reinforced the fact that every Christian’s faith should rest in God’s power – not in 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). Although every child of God begins as a spiritual “baby” in Christ (Hebrews 5:13), most of these brethren had failed to grow and mature in the faith (vs. 2). This was a contributing factor in the divisions that troubled them. By stressing his own “coordinated” work with Apollos (vv. 5-9), Paul is showing these saints that they should follow his example – to bring glory to God – instead of trying to gain glory for themselves. The ultimate “honor” they could enjoy would be the opportunity to be “fellow-workers together with God” (verse 9), as tools in His hands – something the world would not respect anyway!
Notice also that in 1 Corinthians 3:11 Paul comes back to the “foundation” principle, that there is no foundation for the church other than Jesus Christ. Any organization or religion based on any person other than Jesus cannot be the church of the new testament! Only by “building” upon the proper foundation can we have any hope or expectation that our “work” will survive into eternity, verses 12-15.