September 10, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:25 in the audio file.
Or, Paul’s Letter to a People with Problems in Corinth
I have been saying for a while that I think one of the biggest blind spots for so many Bible-toting, truth-loving, theology-lauding churches is that they don’t read much other than the New Testament epistles. And Psalms. Even then, they read thew songs like letters.
On one hand it makes sense. We are the church, the church is a New Testament organism, and all of the epistles were written to churches or to leaders of churches or to people who were members in a church. Acts is about the formation of churches, and Revelation starts with some churches, but if we want to know about what the church should believe and how the church should behave we have tailor-made theological and practical instruction in the epistles.
That said, at least in the bites of evangelical pie that I’ve tasted, it’s been too heavy on the epistle salt and too light on the psalms sugar and history flour and wisdom butter and prophetic baking soda. Salt is good, tasty even, but not all by itself.
So I’ve been working to study and mediate on and even teach outside of the epistles for almost a decade. I’ve put my fork in to an epistle here and there, but I haven’t put a big piece on my plate, our our plate, for a while.
It’s time for a slice of epistolary pie. And, as I’ll introduce this morning and we’ll see throughout our study, 1 Corinthians is a letter for such a time as this. This first—century letter from the apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth, Greece, is full of gospel encouragement, instruction, and admonition. These believing people had a crazy amount of problems, though it’s kind of amazing grace that they didn’t have even more problems than they did. Corinth was one of the least conservative cities in the Roman Empire and all of the Christians would have been new converts and first-generation believers. Next to Rome, the existence of a church in Corinth demonstrates the transforming power of the gospel, even as Paul wrote to them about some addition breaks from the world’s mould that were necessary. Too much of the world was in the church, but by God’s grace there was a church.
This will be good for us to go through. It will be good for those younger believers among us who haven’t spent a lot of time in the letters. It will be good for all of us who live in the world while trying to not be of the world. Our culture does not have complete overlap with that in Corinth, but it is not hard to see so much modern and/or post-modern worldliness among Christians today. And it will be especially good for those of us pursuing a Kuyperian Dispensationalist way of life. Being a Kuyperian isn’t an automatic disinfectant for compromise, for impurity, for greed, for conflict, and for worldliness. Of course being a Dispensationalist has done a lot for separatism but not necessarily to make sanctified and savory salt. 1 Corinthians will help us to know what it looks like to live God-wise, world-foolish image-bearers waiting for the return of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
So let’s begin our study of this epistolary pie and keep our Kuyperian ice cream, too.
A letter is more personal than a treatise or a memo, even if it is a group letter, an open letter. Knowing a little about who wrote the letter and who received the letter can help us understand the contents of the letter.
The city of Corinth is in Greece. It sits on the isthmus with harbors to both the east (heading toward Asia) and the west (heading toward Italy). Imagine two floating frisbees, one north and the other south, connected by a popsicle stick; Corinth was on the stick. The area known as the Peloponnese was on the bottom. A road called the diolkos built around the 6th-5th century BC ran from one coast to the other a little less than four miles long, and sometimes ships would be carried on skids across the isthmus instead of sailing around the long, and potentially dangerous route. Herodotus described the region’s place in the Persian War 492-479 and Thucydides did the same for the Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC. Corinth was a crossroads geographically and historically.
It was sacked by a Roman general, Lucius Mummius, in 146 BC, and was mostly of no consequence for a century until Julius Caesar had it rebuilt as a colony of Rome in 44 BC, partly to extend the Empire and partly to get some of the poor and restless out of Rome. He sent “freedmen” and army veterans to inhabit the city. While there were some Jews who settled there as well (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:18) including Priscilla and Aquila, the city had a Roman and not Greek culture. The government, the official language (Latin), the culture was predominantly Roman by the time Paul got to it.
The city was known for business and trade and arts more than philosophy (compared to Athens less than 50 miles to the east). It was a place for entrepreneurs, a place where a man could work hard to make money and attempt to climb the ladder of social standing.
When in a Roman colony do as the Romans, which meant business and stepping on others to succeed and talking heads talking for money about what worked not necessarily what was true, or at least about what would earn them a following.
To say that the culture was Roman rather than Grecian is not to say that it was irreligious. Politics and economics were tied to worship, even if just nominally; they had gods for everything. Inscriptions dating to the first-century have been found for all the usual suspects of gods: Apollo, Aphrodite/Venus, Athena, Dionysus, Aretmis, Hera, Hermes/Mercury, Jupiter, Poseidon, Zeus and more.
Typically, the more gods you worshipped the better; as they say, don’t keep all your idols in one basket. Of course these gods didn’t all get along with each other and fought for preeminence. Men always become like who or what they worship, and doing whatever it took to win preeminence was the way of the gods.
Magisterial worship was also central feature of life in the Empire. It was okay to worship whatever gods you wanted as long as you acknowledged the the Emperor was the one you really didn’t want to offend. The Emperor required his pinch of incense because he considered himself divine. Paying high taxes to the government may feel like extortion, paying high homage to Caesar as god is certain idolatry. The “Lord” Jesus was a threatening title, and the gospel was an incompatible message with their mindset.
[1 Corinthians is a] letter written to a Christian community situated in a city dominated by a worldview, aspirations, impulses, conventions, and symbolism that were antithetical to the cross of Christ …. (David Garland)
“The church of God that is in Corinth” is how Paul addressed them. It’s the second thing he says after identifying who was writing the letter. From the beginning Paul identifies them as God’s. They are the church that is God’s, a people living in the city but defined by a relationship to God and to each other that is much bigger than the city.
According to Acts 18:1-17 Paul arrived in Corinth on what we refer to as his second missionary journey. It was an obvious strategic target for preaching the gospel. The city was large and there were always people coming in and out, for business or for the Isthmian games or because you had to go through Corinth to get through Greece.
Paul did business in Corinth and was able to support himself financially by his leather-making work. Visitors needed tents for their stay, maybe captains needed new masts for their ships.
Paul arrived around March in AD 50 and didn’t leave until September 51, an 18 month stay. The gospel work was fruitful among those of both higher and lower classes. “De Vos estimates that the church membership was on the order of one hundred” (cited by Garland).
When Paul left Corinth he went to Ephesus where he ministered for three years and maintained back and forth communication the church in Corinth. He refers to a previous letter that he sent them (5:9), as well as to a letter that they sent him (7:1). This canonical letter which we call “1 Corinthians” was prompted either by their letter, or the reports from Chloe’s people (1:11), or by the arrival of friends mentioned at the end (16:17-18), or by all of the above.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians after Pentecost, so in the Spring, of AD 54 before visiting them later and then writing a “harsh” letter, followed by what we have as 2 Corinthians. There are at least four letters, and maybe more. All of the letters were written to address problems, and there are a lot in this one.
Before introducing some of the major themes that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, I do want to say again that it is amazing grace that they didn’t have even more problems. The first two epistles in the New Testament are written to two of the most categorically worldly cities in the first century. And every city in the mid-first century, including every city in Israel, had only just recently heard about the gospel of salvation in Jesus. The Jews had the law and covenants and prophets, which should have been an advantage, but Jesus came to them and they didn’t receive Him. Those outside of Israel had a polytheistic cocktail of confusion and death. The wisdom of the world is as bright as the bottom of a refrigerator in a sunken ship at 11 PM on a cloudy night.
Those who heard Paul preach were hearing something unlike anything else they had ever heard. He didn’t come with rhetorical flair like the traveling orators and philosophical peddlers. Of course many people thought that Paul’s message was “foolish.” How can a “god” let himself be crucified by those he supposedly created and that be good news? How can a dead god do good for me? But to those who believed, the “word of the cross is the power of God.”
The church of God in Corinth experienced that power of God. They had been called into the fellowship of God and His Son. They had received the grace of God in Christ Jesus. They had every reason to be hopeful about the revealing of the Lord Jesus on the last day.
The problem was that the believers in Corinth were hard to distinguish from everyone else in Corinth. By God’s plan, the church is in the world. It is not the same when the world is in the church. Whether they were returning to the habits and practices of their pre-Christian days (again, which all of them had), or whether they were conforming to the mindset and values of their non-Christian neighbors because it was easier or because it was pragmatic, the church was too comfortable with the worldly way of doing things. As one commentator put it, “The Corinthians were simply trying to be Christians with a minimal amount of social and theological disturbance” (Lyle Vander Broek cited in Ciampa and Rosner).
They had wisdom problems, relationship problems—both between the sexes and within the body, and worship problems.
These first-generation Christians were not very mature; they were only two to three year-old believers. They had all sorts of messes in their thinking and practice. And yet Paul gave thanks to God for them and the obvious signs of grace among them, even if in seed form. Paul also expressed great confidence that the gospel would indeed transform them and enable them to live in Corinth in light of the cross.
Paul wasn’t marketing a new program and the gospel wasn’t a commodity for consumers (Thiselton). Because of “the word of the cross” they would not be the same. They are “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). They are a spiritual family, brothers in Christ (1:10), sons of God and known by God (8:3).
In Christ they could be united, they could be righteous, they could love, they could be steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord because Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
So they needed instruction on:
Too much of the world was in the church. What’s our excuse? We have so much more than the Corinthian church, including the letters written to them for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:11).
You are going back into the world, and each one of you will boast. It isn’t whether or not but, how or about what. As believers, boast in the Lord. Jesus is your wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. He is your blessing. You are #blessed in Him. The first way to stand out from worldliness is to say so.
[Y]ou 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 1:7–9, ESV)