Gleanings from Paul
by A. W. Pink
6. Prayer for Weaker Brothers
1 Corinthians 1:4-7
The Original Corinth was the chief city of ancient Greece not only in authority but also in wealth and grandeur and, we may add, in luxury and licentiousness—the temple of Venus being situated there. Corinth was entirely destroyed by the Roman consul Mammius, 120 B.C. As one writer expresses it, "Its inhabitants were dispersed, and the conqueror carried with him to Rome the richest spoils that ever graced the triumphs of a Roman general." For a century after that Corinth lay desolate in ruins. But Julius Caesar, perceiving the military importance and commercial possibilities of its location, determined to rebuild it. For that purpose he sent to Corinth a colony consisting chiefly of freedmen. The Corinthian men Justus (Acts 19:7), Crispus and Gaius (1 Cor. 1:4), Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:17) all had names of Roman origin. That colony however was little more than the nucleus of the new city. Merchants flocked to Corinth from all parts and many Jews were drawn to it by the lure of commerce. Art, literature, and luxury revived. The Isthmian Games were again celebrated there.
The New Corinth
The new Corinth was made the capital of Achaia. Under the fostering care of Augustus Caesar, Corinth regained much of its ancient splendor and by A.D. 50 had reached a preeminence which made it the glory of Greece. But it was a material and carnal glory, for it was the center of voluptuousness. Yet where sin abounded grace did much more abound, for God had ordained that this place of gross wickedness should witness some of the grandest triumphs of the Cross of Christ. From that viewpoint it is easy to perceive how well situated Corinth was to be a center from which the gospel might be diffused. Not only was it the political center of Greece, the seat of its commercial and intellectual life, a place of concourse of many citizens and nations, but it was a place from which influences of many kinds emanated in all directions. To this city Paul was sent. Though an ambassador of the King of kings he was attended by no retinue, and his approach was entirely unheralded and unaccompanied.
A complete stranger to the place, Paul sought out two of his own countrymen, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who were employed in the same craft in which he was proficient. Paul lodged with them and worked with them in tent-making (Acts 18:1-2). On the Sabbaths he went to the synagogue where he reasoned with and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. A little later Paul’s hands were strengthened by Silas and Timothy joining with him, and he testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. But they opposed and blasphemed. Nothing daunted, Paul shook his raiment and said to them, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles" (Acts 18:6). The Lord honored his decision, first saving Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and all his house. Then "many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized" (Acts 18:8). But they were only the firstfruits; a larger harvest was to be gathered. "Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city" (Acts 18:9-10).
Paul’s Labors in Corinth
Note that they were the Lord’s people, even though yet in a state of nature, dead in trespasses and sins—His by sovereign and eternal election. "And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them" (Acts 18:11). Paul’s labors were richly blessed, and the many monuments to divine grace that were raised up constituted the foundation members of the Church of God at Corinth.
After the apostle’s departure trouble arose in the assembly and various evils broke out. It must be remembered that the membership of this church was a heterogeneous one, that many members had been reared in heathenism, that they were surrounded by all the incentives to self-indulgence, plied on every hand by vain philosophers, and that at this time no part of the New Testament was in circulation. Judaizers had propagated error and sown the seeds of dissension and a strong party spirit was at work. But considerable carnality prevailed and serious disorders were marring this Christian testimony.
Among the evils in the Corinthian church were cliques and factions, the violation of the seventh commandment in various forms, and the remissness of the assembly to exercise discipline in such matters. There was a disorderly and unbrotherly spirit in their meetings. Women were allowed to enter the congregation with uncovered heads and to speak in public, exercising the gift of prophecy and speaking in tongues without regard to order and edification. The Lord’s supper was debased into a common meal. Brother went to law against brother before heathen magistrates, and some of them became rebellious against Paul. Tidings of these things had reached the apostle’s ears. And though this epistle was written in answer to certain more specific inquiries he had received from them, he used the opportunity in his reply to take up all those things which needed correction. Though there were some things in this epistle which concerned local, evanescent, and special matters, yet fundamental doctrine and much of lasting importance was also interweaved.
It is most blessed to see how Paul commenced his letter to them. He had much more to say of blame than of praise, yet after the opening address and salutation he told them: "I thank my God always on your behalf" (1 Cor. 1:4). Before directly charging them with their disorderly conduct, he first assured them of the place they had in his affections. Though Paul was now absent from them, they held a warm place in his heart. He constantly remembered them before the throne of grace. A lesson here for those engaged in the pastoral office: When called of God to occupy another place in His vineyard, they are not to forget those they left in their former field of service. The "I thank my God always on your behalf" tells us that Paul did not regard prayer as a spiritual luxury to be enjoyed only on rare and special occasions. Rather it was a regular practice with him, a duty which be constantly discharged, and that, in seeking fresh supplies of grace not only for himself but on the behalf of others also. Prayer has been rightly termed "the pulse of the Christian’s life," intimating his health or sickliness.
Paul Owns God as "My God"
Once more we find the apostle referring to the One to whom he returned thanks as "my God." Though we sought to bring out the force of that expression on a former occasion, it may be well for us to summarize the same here. Paul did not regard Deity as absolute and infinitely removed but as a living and personal reality to whom he was intimately related. "My God" was an avowal of covenant relationship, for the grand covenant promise was "I... will be your God, and ye shall be my people" (Lev. 26:12). "My God" was expressive of personal relationship: He was Paul’s God by eternal election, by redemption, and by regenerating power. God communicated life to Paul and stamped the divine image on his heart, thereby making him manifestly His own dear child. "My God" was an acknowledgment of Paul’s personal choice, for he had consciously and voluntarily taken God to be his absolute Lord, supreme Good, and everlasting Portion. "My God" was a confession of practical relationship. All Paul’s talents and energies were devoted to the glory of God who had shown him such abundant mercy, who would keep that which Paul had committed to Him, who would supply all Paul’s needs.
Such a God was an object of fervent adoration. His goodness had to be acknowledged, and Paul was continuously engaged in that holy exercise. "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ" (l Cor. 1:4). In this Paul has set us all an example: "Be ye followers of me" (1 Cor. 11:1). If we do not emulate him in this blessed practice of thanking God for others, then most certainly we shall suffer loss. Is not failure at this particular point one reason why some of the Lord’s people find it so difficult to obtain assurance that "the grace of God" has been given them by Jesus Christ? Is it not because they were not and are not truly thankful when they have reason to believe He has bestowed His grace on others? Is there a tendency to be too much occupied with our own spiritual interests? God will not prosper self-centeredness. It is not without reason that the Lord has bidden His people, "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil. 2:4). There is such a thing as spiritual selfishness as well as natural selfishness. Then let us seek to heed that exhortation, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice" (Rom. 12:15).
An Important Practical Lesson
"I thank my God always on your behalf." That word always is very blessed when we call to mind the attendant circumstances. It points up an important practical lesson for us. There had been various changes in the Corinthian assembly during the apostle’s absence, and none of those changes had been for the better. But there had been no alteration or lessening of Paul’s affections for them. There had been that among them which must have dampened his joy, but he had not allowed it to chill his love. He gave thanks for them even then as frequently as he had done formerly; yes, even though some of them had become cool toward him. And do not the writer and reader need to keep close watch over their hearts that they do not allow any change in the conduct of their brethren to diminish their love for them? True, it may call for a variation of the expression (as in Paul’s case; see 4:21), for love must ever be faithful; and the form taken by its outward manifestation is to be regulated for the good of its object, yet there is to be no lessening of its fervor.
Though Paul could not assure the Corinthians, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world" (Rom. 1:8), he did adore God for having effectually called them: "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ." And does not that inculcate another important lesson for us, namely, that we are not to despise the bruised reed nor the smoking flax? True, we shall thank God most ardently for those who most resemble His Son, yet we must not fail to thank Him also for those in whom as yet we can but faintly discern Him. If the name of Christ is fragrant to us, we shall rejoice wherever it is poured forth. If His image is precious to us, we should own it in whomsoever we see it—just as when His gospel is prized by us we shall be glad for whoever preaches it. Though as yet Christ’s image can be only faintly detected in His babes, yet if we see it at all, we have the infallible assurance that He who has begun a good work in them will assuredly complete the same (Phil. 1:6).
It was this particular truth which sustained Paul’s heart at this very time (1 Cor. 1:8). At least three years had passed since he left Corinth, during which time he had labored hard in other fields. But he recalled with gratitude and joy how graciously and wondrously God had wrought in the notoriously wicked city of Corinth. That was what upheld him when he learned of the sad disorders among them. "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ." His memory went back to the "day of their espousals." Instead of being wholly absorbed with and weighted down by their sad failures, Paul held fast to the fact and kept foremost in his mind the truth that they had been both the objects and recipients of the sovereign and invincible grace of God. Since that grace had not been earned by them but "given by Jesus Christ," he knew that it could not be forfeited; they would grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Savior. A careful reading of the second epistle which he later sent to the same church shows how blessedly his confidence was justified and his hope realized.
Important Instruction to God’s Servants
Paul did not begin this epistle by rebuking the Corinthians for their waywardness but instead by enumerating certain things which evidenced them to be the special objects of divine favor. We are to see in this not only a lovely exemplification of the apostle’s own magnanimity and graciousness but also important instruction as to how any servant of God is to proceed in his dealings with those—particularly his own children in the gospel—who have wandered out of the way. He must first seek to reach and melt their hearts with a renewed sense of God’s goodness to them, for only then would they be capable of perceiving the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the dishonor done Him by a disorderly walk on the part of those who bore His name. By calling to remembrance the day of their salvation, Paul not only sought to recall to them the marvel of divine mercy that brought them out of darkness into His marvelous light but also to remind them that he himself had been the favored instrument used of God in their conversion. Therefore, since he was their spiritual father (1 Cor. 4:15), they should more readily attend to the message he was about to give them.
The "grace of God" has reference first to His free and sovereign favor and then to the blessings which issue therefrom—as we speak of receiving favors from a person. It was in this second sense that the apostle used the term when he thanked God for the grace which had been given to the Corinthians. Observe how careful he was to honor the Savior by according Him His due place as Mediator: "The grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ." God’s grace was first given to His elect in Christ before the foundation of the world (2 Tim. 1:9), and then it was given them by Christ at their regeneration and throughout their Christian course (John 1:14-16). All the grace of God flows to us through the Redeemer. It was, first, the grace of God by Jesus Christ that had been bestowed on the Corinthians at their conversion; then they were "enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge" (1 Cor. 1:5). The same truth is emphasized here, gifts and attainments being expressly ascribed to Christ. Thus all ground for self-gratification and boasting was removed, and the honor was placed where it rightly belonged. There was no pandering to the creature here but a humbling of him.
Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit
"Enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge." The order of those two things may strike us as strange. If so, it is through failure to understand the particular kind of utterance and knowledge to which Paul alluded. The reference was not to what is ordinary but to the extraordinary, not to the graces which the Spirit imparts but to His gifts. At the beginning of this dispensation there were not only officers extraordinary (apostles and prophets) but there were gifts extraordinary; and as successors were not appointed for the former so a continuance of the latter was never intended. In the early days of this era the Holy Spirit made His presence evident by sensible signs (see Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-46). Extraordinary gifts and signs were given in fulfillment of Christ’s promise (Mark 16:17-18) for the establishing of Christianity and the infantile state of the Church, for certifying the truth of the gospel (Heb. 2:4), divinely attesting the doctrine taught by the apostles and evidencing God’s approval of the same. We term these miraculous works of the Spirit extraordinary to distinguish them from His ordinary ones, or those gifts and graces which He has communicated to Christians all through this age.
Those supernatural gifts were designed to arrest the attention of outsiders (1 Cor. 14:22), to command a hearing for the apostles, to authenticate the gospel in heathen countries. Of all the churches of God that we read of in the New Testament that at Corinth seems to have abounded most in these gifts—and to have abused them most. Those Corinthians who exhibited these spiritual gifts despised others of their number who had not their particular gift, and those without gifts envied those who had them.
The gift of utterance included prophesying, or speaking by divine afflatus, but more especially referred to a miraculous endowment which enabled its possessor to speak in divers languages (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:4-5). The gift of knowledge was a supernatural endowment for interpreting the prophecies and strange tongues (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:26). In the body of the epistle, Paul acquainted the Corinthians with the excellence of those gifts and how they were to be used. They were from the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4, 8); they were given for mutual profit (1 Cor. 12:7); they were to be exercised in an orderly manner for edification (1 Cor. 14:26-33). Paul also pointed out to the Corinthians something still more desirable and excellent—the way to exercise love (1 Cor. 13).
Though these gifts were to render them more serviceable, they were not sanctifying ones (1 Cor. 13:2). Though the Corinthians had been plenteously endowed, yet spiritually they were only babes (1 Cor. 3:1). Though through their pride and forwardness those gifts had been much abused, yet the apostle adored God for the communicating of them. They were the purchase of Christ (Eph. 4:8) and the fruit of His ascension (Acts 2:33). Though the apostle could not (as yet) rejoice at the fruits of the Spirit being borne by them, yet he let them know he returned thanks for the extraordinary gifts bestowed on them. That too was calculated to have a conciliatory effect on the Corinthians and dispose them to heed what followed. Far from depreciating those gifts as valueless because they had not made better use of them, Paul traced them to God as their Source and Jesus Christ as their Bestower. There was no flattering of them because they were in possession of them, but a magnifying of Him to whom they were indebted (Acts 4:7).
The Extraordinary Gifts No Longer Prevalent
Though these extraordinary gifts are not exercised in most Christian assemblies, there are other gifts distinguishable from spiritual graces—natural endowments, intellectual capacity, readiness of speech, and so forth. While those gifts and the natural talents we have mentioned are far inferior to spiritual graces, yet from the example of the apostle here with reference to the former we may learn valuable lessons concerning the latter. First, the one as much as the other is the gift of God and is to be thankfully acknowledged as such. Grace is the most excellent thing of all, yet add gifts and it becomes more excellent. It was the temple which sanctified the gold; nevertheless the gold beautified the temple. It is grace which sanctifies gifts, yet gifts adorn and render its possessors more useful. Second, the possessors of gifts have no reason to be puffed up thereby nor to look down upon those who do not have them, for it is God who makes one to differ from another. Third, we should not disparagingly contrast gifts with graces. Paul did not. If there is danger on the one hand there is no less on the other; one may be as proud of his faith or love as another of his utterance or knowledge.
After all that has been brought out above on 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 there is less need for us to say much on what follows. "Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in [or among] you" (1 Cor. 1:6). The "testimony of Christ" signifies the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 it is termed "the testimony of God." The former refers to its grand Object, the latter to its gracious Author. Mention is made of this testimony being confirmed as a proof that it did not come to them in the letter only but also in divine power. In other words, the testimony was an evidence they had received the gospel to their own salvation (cf. Col. 1:6). The gospel had been accepted by a God-given faith and was firmly established in their convictions and affections. If we translate it "confirmed among you" then the allusion is to the miraculous gifts which had been imparted to them (cf. Hebrews 2:4). The opening "even as" looks back to both verses 4 and 5. Paul was saying, "As your conversion and your endowment with these gifts proceeded from the grace of God by Jesus Christ, equally so did this confirmation."
"So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:7). This confirms the meaning we have given to the previous verse. The gospel had been so confirmed among them that no church was more plenteously endowed with gifts. It had been so confirmed in them that it produced this blessed fruit—they were eagerly awaiting the Redeemer’s return. The reference is to the expectation they cherished of Christ’s second advent, the promise of which was connected with the resurrection of His people and the consummation of His kingdom. So generally was Christ’s return the blessed hope of all the early Christians that they were characterized as those who loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8). How much more so should we love to contemplate His second advent now that that glorious event is two thousand years nearer! The gifts and graces of the Spirit are but the "firstfruits" (Rom. 8:23), and they should make us yearn for the coming of Christ, when we shall enter fully into the inheritance He purchased for us.