Paul’s next letter is very different in character to Romans. Paul writes to the church in Corinth – and a large part of the letter is dealing with problems in the church, and questions from the Corinthians. More even than any other of Paul’s letters we feel like we are listening to one end of a telephone conversation.
Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church is fascinating. Key background is in Acts where Paul’s visit to Corinth is described. Paul spends over a year in Corinth, and is helped by the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla (or sometimes the order is the other way around, Priscilla and Aquila). As is usual he meets with Jewish opposition, but then finds success among the Gentiles.
This would have made for a mixed congregation – Corinth was a seaport, with a reputation for immorality. It was multinational and cosmopolitan, open to new ideas – and in this case open to the gospel. You don’t need to read far into 1 Corinthians to realise how much of a mixture the congregation was, and how many different ideas were around in the congregation of the day.
This was a church split into factions supporting different human leaders, with sexual immorality because some people thought that the body no longer mattered, with people joining in feasts in idol temples, with the Lord’s Supper celebrated in a way that highlighted the splits in wealth, a church with many gifts used in services – but great confusion as people spoke without waiting for others. This was a church where some were even confused about the resurrection – thinking it was a spiritual thing that had already happened, with no-more to come.
Into all that Paul writes 1:1-9. The shock of these verses is that Paul starts with praise. He starts by affirming what has happened in the Corinthians. He starts first of all by affirming that they are sanctified – made holy – in Christ Jesus, and then pours out this effusive prayer of thanks to God for them:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.1 Corinthians 1:4-9
It is a careful mixture of honest praise – the Corinthians really are gifted in every way – and gentle encouragement towards a right approach. The Christian life is one of waiting for the final day, the day when Jesus will be revealed. It isn’t about having everything perfect now. Our best life is definitely still to come.
Fundamentally Paul is encouraging them to live with two realities in view. The first is that they have been sanctified. Some of them may not be living out holy lives, but they have been set apart for holiness. In that sense they are already holy.
The NT uses the vocabulary of holiness mostly in this sense, relating to our being set apart for God. We tend to use the vocabulary of holiness mostly in talking about living holy lives now, and sometimes forget about the first sense. But we can only hope to live lives consecrated to God now because of what God has already done for us in making us holy, in setting us apart for his service.
The second reality is that of Jesus return. Jesus is coming back to renew the world, to transform the cosmos, and the Christian life now is one of waiting for that to happen. Not as we passively wait for a bus to come, but actively, as one waiting for a new child, or for a wedding day, or for a new job which requires preparation.
And so Paul seeks to place the Corinthian issues in context, in between these two poles. I wonder whether we would have the patience to do the same with a church struggling with the same issues as Corinth – or would we write them off as heretics and condemn them?
The first issue is that they are divided over leaders. “I follow Peter”, “I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos” – and some, perhaps ever so slightly sanctimoniously “I follow Christ”. It has an all too familiar ring. Ironically the leaders cited in this opening chapter all could work together very happily – they just developed followers who liked to argue.
Paul’s remedy is to remind them of the priority of the cross – it was Christ who was crucified for them, not Paul or any other mere human. The message of the cross humbles their desire for wise words that impress human intellect and their desire for miracles that will demonstrate visibly the power of God. And yet the message of the cross is the wisdom of God.
This message of the cross, Paul reminds them, has saved them – and not many of them were particularly impressive – they were among the weak and despised of the world, but such are the people God chooses to work amongst. No-one has any grounds to boast before God.
In the first chapters of 1 Corinthians (1-4) Paul gives the Corinthians a crash course in what true spiritual ministry looks like. It is cross shaped, and Christian ministers are servants of the cross, building on the foundation Christ has laid.
The Christian church is a temple of the Spirit – and so those who aspire to leadership must be careful how they lead. The Corinthians think that they have already arrived, that they have entered the resurrection age in all its fulness – but Paul reminds them, with biting sarcasm in chapter 4, that working for Christ now is hard work, being fools for Christ’s sake looking forward to the judgement that is to come.
The next major issue Paul deals with is the issue of sexual immorality. It seems that some of the church in Corinth did not think that the body was particularly important for the Christian life – what really mattered was the spirit. Some of those thought that anything to do with the body should be shunned, while others thought that one way of showing their freedom in Christ was to do whatever their bodies wanted to do.
Paul’s answer is to remind them of their identity in Christ. Once they were defined by their sin – but now they have been washed, sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus. They are now God’s temples, bought with a price – God is to be honoured in their bodies. What Christians do with their bodies matters. God’s commands will always feel out of step with the world around – they would have done in 1st century Corinth, just as they so often do in 21st century Britain.
Having tackled that Paul moves on to the issue of food offered to idols – which sounds remote to us (at least in the west). However the issue is less important than the principles he sets out. Some of the Corinthians made much of their freedom, and of flaunting their freedom – but Paul’s point is that freedom should be used to build others up. If showing off how free we are causes others to sin we have badly missed the point.
Paul also points out that while food offered to idols may be a matter of indifference, sharing in idol worship at idol temples is not. Behind the mute idol is a demonic deception – and Christians should be careful to flee idolatry. Paul’s warning in 9:24-10:13 is stark. Paul does not assume he will escape the temptation, but disciplines himself, and he uses the example of the Israelites in the desert to warn the Corinthians that anyone who thinks they are strong should be careful lest they fall. The remedy is found in God’s faithfulness and protection – no-one worried about falling needs to fear, only those who have stopped worrying need to worry.
Paul moves on to discuss various issues related to the Corinthian church’s meetings – the leadership role of women, the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. In none of these cases do we have the exact problems that the Corinthians did, but in each of them Paul’s words have important implications for us to consider. Important in that process, perhaps especially in relation to the leadership role of women in the church, is working out what impact the culture of Paul’s day and the relation of Paul’s teaching to that should have for us today – so check out the resources section below for some more detailed places to go to help your study.
Finally Paul turns to what he regards as of central importance – the gospel of the resurrection. It is no accident that 1 Corinthians starts with the cross and finishes with the resurrection. The two are fundamental to a correct understanding of the Christian life, and fundamental to correcting the Corinthian errors.
Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of Christians being raised. It is the guarantee that Jesus will come back to renew this world. This world and our bodies now are the seed of something infinitely greater to come. Life now has many disappointments, hardships and heartaches. But the Christian hope holds out something better to come.
There is a day – as we remembered this Easter Sunday – to come when we will not all sleep (die) but we will all be transformed. When the trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. (At this point I want you to have those words in their setting in the Messiah echoing in your ears) On that day death will be swallowed up in victory – the victory given through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of that the Corinthians should stand firm, working hard for the Lord in all they do, because they know that work is not in vain. Nothing is wasted. And so they should give generously to the poor, welcoming those who work for the Lord. They should be watchful and standing firm – strong in the faith, but filled with love in all they do.
When you read 1 Corinthians the same advice as in reading Romans applies – look for the new sections and try identify the key thoughts. You will notice that the phrase “about the matters you wrote about” or similar comes quite often – it often introduces a short quotation from the Corinthians which Paul then takes issue with.
It is a good reminder that this is a letter written in response to a particular situation. It is for us, but it was not written directly to us – so it is always important to think carefully about the implications for us.
New International Commentary series – Gordon Fee. This has to be the go to for preaching or teaching on 1 Corinthians. It is readable, and clear and really helpful.
Bible Speaks Today and NIVAC series will be useful more general reads.
On chapters 1-4 both Don Carson (The cross and Christian Ministry) and John Stott have written very helpful books based on sermons/conference addresses. They have slightly different takes on some aspects of the chapters – but since we shouldn’t be following either ‘Carson’ or ‘Stott’ that’s OK! 🙂
Issues in 1 Corinthians
Both issues around the role of women in church leadership and sexuality are raised by a study of 1 Corinthians.
Covering both is Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William Webb – an excellent study of why he thinks the church was right to move away from allowing slavery, accept women in leadership but shouldn’t move away from the idea that God’s standard is one man, one woman in lifelong monogamous union.
If you want to think through more on the practical and pastoral issues of holding to a very different standard to the world around in the area of human sexuality I would recommend The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw, and ‘The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert‘ as well as ‘Openness Unhindered‘ by Rosaria Butterfield in the States – all of these are really good at challenging churches to live differently. Also in this country the Living Out website has resources for churches.
On the issue of women in leadership there are lots out there. At a very detailed level are:
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Wayne Grudem who argues that women should not be in leadership except in certain very constrained situations – very thorough, although I think flawed in various ways…) and Discovering Biblical Equality: Complimentarity without Hierarchy – by various authors is detailed in arguing for women in teaching and leadership roles.
Briefer but still useful is 2 Views on Women in Ministry – confusingly in the 4 views series by Zondervan – it does actually have four ‘perspectives’, and is very interesting on helping work through the issues.
Lucy Peppiatt (Principle of Westminster Theological Centre in Cheltenham) has an academic level book Women and Worship at Corinth, and a more ‘accessible’ level ‘Unveiling Paul’s women‘ (specifically 1 Cor 11) and ‘Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women‘ (more wide ranging) – which should be very interesting – I’ve heard her interviewed on the topic – she would argue that women should be involved in teaching and leadership at all levels, and has some intriguing arguments on 1 Corinthians 11 in particular.