“Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” Ephesians 1:3
According to Bishop James Usher, et. al., the apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians around 59 AD, towards the close of his three year ministry in Ephesus, in what was his second missionary journey chronicled in the book of Acts.
The epistle is in response to a letter of inquiry Paul received from the Corinthian congregation,1 concerning marriage and eating things offered to idols, and also because of reports Paul had received from other brethren of deepening divisions among the Corinthians, a case of incest among them, and their toleration of brethren settling civil differences in heathen courts.
But their is a deeper message, hidden within the discourse concerning all these issues confronting the church at Corinth, one that is entirely missed by most Christian expositors and commentators on Paul’s epistles. It is this message that I wish to address in this essay.
In the first chapter of Corinthians, Paul addresses the divisions that have been created, apparently, over the issue of the ordinance of baptism:
1 Cor 1:10-17
10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
11 For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
12 Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.
13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius;
15 Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.
16 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.
17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
This passage is often used as proof text that Paul baptized people (with water), and therefore ordained the practice in the church. The only contention in the passage, they say, is over who does the baptizing, not over the issue of whether or not the ordinance itself is effectual. While Paul doesn’t explicitly say not to do it, verse seventeen alludes to the fact that he does not consider it integral to the preaching of the gospel, i.e., “the cross of Christ,” but that it may actually interfere with it.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to debunking the “wise” of the world, whether they be of the religious Jews or the pagan Greek philosophers, asserting that his message, “the preaching of the cross,” is a “stumbling block” to the former, and “foolishness” to the latter.
In chapter two, he establishes that he and his followers “speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory,” of which none of these so-called wise men of the world had any knowledge, and I dare say, neither do their counterparts today.
At the end of the chapter, he identifies two categories of humans: the natural man, and the spiritual man, in which he asserts that only those who are of the “spiritual” category will be enabled to receive “the things of the Spirit of God.”
1 Cor 2:14-15
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
15 But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.
Then, at the beginning of chapter three, he refers to the Corinthian congregation as “carnal,” and “babes,” asserting that because of this condition he could not speak “unto you as unto spirtual.” In other words, he was not able to feed them with “meat,” only “milk.”
I have often heard preaching that treats this as three separate categories: natural, carnal, spiritual. The natural man is unsaved (unregenerate); the carnal man is saved, but immature, and behaves like a natural man, and therefore must be addressed as such; the spiritual man is saved, and mature or “grown up” in the faith. For now, I’ll agree with this assessment.
These designations are routinely applied in Christendom to individuals in the world, but in the context of this letter, Paul is applying the carnal designation in a corporate way, to the entire Corinthian congregation. Surely, every individual member of the Corinthian congregation2 could not have been engaging in the exact same immature behavior, as in the case of the man having sex with his father’s wife3 (his mother?), or those “going to law before the unjust.”4
No, I don’t believe this to be the case at all in Paul’s usage of the collective pronoun “you”5. I believe there is a deeper issue here that involved all those congregations established by Paul in his Acts ministry. The Corinthians were merely the example he uses to characterize “the church” during this period of time as infantile or carnal in nature and practice. While the sinful behaviors that some of them were engaging in are certainly things that should not be condoned in the church now, they are not the main issue. Let’s move on into the letter to discover what that issue is.
In chapter eleven Paul addresses the issue of keeping ordinances, 6 and in the second half of the chapter, beginning with verse 17, specifically “the Lord’s supper. “ 7 In particular, verses 20-22 are revealing:
1 Cor 11:20-22
When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.
21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.
If this sounds like a rebuke, that’s because it is. He is clearly reproving the practice of partaking of the Lord’s supper in a corporate fashion. It is obvious the practice is something that is part of the orders for the church, but it says to me that he is telling them not to perform it when they meet corporately.
Then, in chapter 12 he takes on the other “biggie” of Christian ordinances: baptism:
1 Cor 12:12
12 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Notice that there is no mention of water in this passage. Most would say it is implied that this is one and the same as the ritual “washing” or “immersing” of adherents with/in water. But its three companion passages, Romans 6:3, Gal. 3:27, and Colossians 2:12 say nothing about the presence of water, but all speak of being baptized into Christ, and two of them refer to this as a baptism of death. Moreover, unlike John’s baptism, or the one Peter prescribed in his Acts 2 sermon,8 which were both very much “wet” rituals, none of these passages say anything about this baptism being “unto the remission of sins.”
This, to me, explains why Paul would make the declaration that he was sent “not to baptize…”
And yet he admitted that he had baptized some folks. He also admitted that he circumcised Timothy in Acts 16, while later on criticizing and chastising the Galatians for counting circumcision to be a necessary thing.9
There is a reason for these apparent contradictions. Let’s move ahead to see what it is.
At the end of chapter 12, Paul switches from his discourse on the body of Christ back to the “gifts” which dominated the discourse in the first part of the chapter:
1 Cor 12:28-31
And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
It’s obvious that all these spiritual gifts are extant in the church at this time, and encouraged by Paul himself10, but that last phrase says something very significant concerning all this; it says, in so many words, this is going to give way to something different and better, and in Chapter 13, the famous “love” chapter, beginning midway into the chapter, he says this:
1 Cor 13:8-12
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
What is this saying? To me, it is clearly and plainly saying that the infantile church, of which the Corinthians were the poster child, had limited knowledge and vision (“we know in part, and we prophesy in part….we see through a glass, darkly…”). But verse 11 says volumes: It says that this is a temporary condition; what was ordained for the church at that time, done because of its infantile state, would be put aside when the church became “a man….when that which is perfect is come.” Now, the question remains: when did/does this happen?
The Dispensation of the grace of God, and the one new man
If we were judging by what is practiced in most of Christendom, we would have to conclude that this is something that has yet to come about. All of them ordain and practice water baptism and the corporate celebration of the Lord’s supper (or the Eucharist). Never mind that there is no uniformity in these practices. Since no instructions for doing them were provided in Paul’s epistles, I suppose folks just figure that the Lord left it open to do them as they see fit.
And then there’s the “sign” gifts, which got a new lease on life at the beginning of the 20th century, and have since been adopted, at least in part, by both the Roman Catholic church and most Protestant denominations.
And speaking of denominations,11 the last time I looked at the count, it was estimated at 30,000, rendering Paul’s charge to the Corinthians “that there be no divisions among you” to be a bad joke. If one looks at the reasons for all these divisions, at the core of them will be disagreements over church “ordinances,” i.e., which ones remain in force, how they are to be conducted and by whom, when they are to be conducted, what they represent and affect, ad. infinitum.
But what if all these practices ordained for the church during the Acts period were never meant to be carried on beyond it? What if they were in place for a specific purpose that ceased with the Acts? In fact, this is exactly the case, and we can see the declaration of it by the man who ordained them all in the first place, the apostle Paul, in two of his post acts epistles, Ephesians and Colossians, where he reveals what “that which is perfect,” and “the more excellent way” are.
In the first chapter of Colossians he writes:
Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
26 Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:
And in the second chapter of Ephesians:
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; (my emphasis)
In the Colossian passage he declares what has been given to him (not Peter, or James, or John) is meant to complete or finish the final orders to the church the body of Christ. And in the above passage in the Ephesian letter, his statement in 1 Cor. 13:11 about becoming a man and putting away childish things, is fulfilled in the declaration of “the one new man,” which is created by the abolition of “the ordinances.”
Traditional Christian commentators claim that his reference to ordinances in the above passage meant the Mosaic law. But the law of Moses was taken out of the way long before this, in his Antiochian sermon in Acts 13, and later in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. Thus the elimination of the law would not be a “new” thing. Nay, I contend that what he abolished in this statement were all the practices ordered during the Acts period, which was the infantile state of the church.
The one new man is “the fellowship of the mystery” of Ephesians 3:9. It is the enjoining of the Acts body of Christ (the “we” of Ephesians 1 & 2) with the post Acts body of Christ (the “ye Gentiles” of Ephesians 1, 2 & 3) by the abolition of the ordinances that separated and divided them. This declared the advent of “the dispensation of the grace of God”14, and the Ephesian and Colossian Gentile congregations as “fellow heirs” with the Acts congregations.
What remained after the smoke cleared at the end of Paul’s “course”15 was this “one new man”…”faith, hope and charity”, all of which are encompassed by the gospel of Christ…and the complete, perfect, written revelation of God for the edification of this new man, and nothing else. It is the combination of these things that constitute “that which is perfect.”
All Scripture references are from the King James Bible. Feel at liberty to publish this or any other article on this site as you see fit.
Are you saved? Jesus Christ—“who knew no sin”—and his sacrificial death on the Cross, has made the way for “everyone that believeth…to be reconciled to God. History has shown that whatever peace man has achieved in the world can only be temporary. The Bible says that individual men and women can know, beyond a doubt, that they are saved and bound for heaven, and therefore have absolute and permanent peace, regardless of what is going on in the world, by trusting Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for their eternal salvation. “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures….for our justification….believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Have you done this? If not, why not now?
established by Paul in his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-18) in 53 AD ↩
I use the singular form here, but it is possible, even probable, that there was more than one congregation in Corinth. In fact, it appears, from what Paul says about “divisions among you” that this was, indeed, the case ↩
chapter 5 ↩
chapter 6 ↩
in modern vernacular, he might have said “you all” ↩
an ordinance is an order, decree or law ↩
also referred to in modern times as: “communion,” “the Lord’s table”; the “Eucharist”, etc. ↩
Ref. Mark 1:4,5; Acts 2:38 ↩
Gal. 5:2,3 ↩
also ref. chapter 14 ↩
Romans 1:16 ↩
this is exemplified in some of the things Paul did and said during this period to placate his Jewish kinsman, e.g., circumcising Timothy in Acts 16, and his admission of becoming “as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews” in 1 Cor. 9:20 ↩
Eph. 3:2 ↩
2 Tim. 4:7 ↩