1 Cor 1:1-9
I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly very excited that Romans is safely behind us and now we are moving ahead into 1 Corinthians. But I don’t think I’ll be hitting the cruise control button anytime soon. Romans and Corinthians are both hard books to preach on, but for completely different reasons. Romans was hard because of its theological content while Corinthians is hard because Paul doesn’t pull any punches and he takes on some very difficult topics and some very difficult people.
Paul has no other choice but to confront the Corinthians because they are in serious need of adjustment. What’s at stake? The gospel. Every single member at that church was in danger of forfeiting the true gospel and replacing it with a false one.
Here is my summary statement for 1 Cor 1:1-9: Paul’s exemplary attitude toward the Corinthians and his extraordinary affection for the Corinthians was created by his divine perspective of the Corinthians.
How did Paul’s divine perspective of the Corinthians cause him to be thankful for them?
1) Because he recognized God’s call in their lives.
2) Because he saw evidences of grace.
3) And because his confidence was anchored in the faithfulness of God.
Let me start with some background information. The city of Corinth was originally a Roman colony consisting primarily of freed slaves who were imported to Corinth from other regions. Thus, many Corinthians did not have Italian roots and were not true Romans, ethnically. Rather, they were people from the eastern Mediterranean region so — Syrians, Egyptians, Jews, among others. So these were men and women with a fading sense of nationality because they were ex-slaves being brought into a foreign civilization and culture not their own. In our modern context, it’s like a first generation or a 1.5 generation church in America, the only difference being that at the Corinthian church, multiple ethnic groups would have been represented since they shared the same language — Greek.
In addition, Corinth was cosmopolitan in character. It was a wealthy port city known for its trading and bronze manufacturing. People came from all over the Mediterranean world to sell and buy goods. As you can imagine in such a wealthy place of commerce, vice and religion flourished side by side. Sexual immorality was rampant. One ancient playwright coined a verb, “korinthiazo,” or to act like a Corinthian, which literally meant, to commit fornication. That’s pretty much sums up the moral landscape in Corinth.
Paul was the founder of this church and this is mentioned in Acts 18 where it is recorded that he stayed there for 18 months. That’s quite a long time for Paul so he knows this congregation rather well. He left the church in AD 51-52 for Ephesus where he spent the next three years. Soon after he left Corinth for Ephesus, problems started to arise. There is mention of a Previous Letter in 1 Corinthians 5 that was never found, and then, 1 Corinthians was written a year or two later in AD 53-54 while he was still at the church in Ephesus.
Then, 2 Corinthians mentions a Tearful Letter that was also never found. So including 2 Corinthians which was written around AD 55-56, there were at least 3 and quite possibly 4 letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in a relatively short period of time. We are talking about a 4-5 year period. This highlights the fact that Paul must have been quite burdened over this church.
We know from 1 Corinthians, Paul told them not to associate with Christian brothers committing fornication in the Previous Letter. He also mentions other problems like greed, swindling and idolatry, sins that had been occurring well before 1 Corinthians was written. Two of these issues — fornication and idolatry — resurface in 1 Corinthians, meaning that despite Paul’s previouse attempt, there has been no repentance at this church. It is clear from 1 Cor 5 that the Corinthians themselves have completely disregarded the Previous Letter and that is why Paul had to follow up with the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Between Paul’s leaving the church after its founding in Acts 18:18 and his writing of 2 Corinthians, some tension has developed between Paul and this church. These tensions come to a head in an unexpected visit Paul makes to the Corinthian church, noted in 2 Cor 2:1-4. This is often referred to as the Painful Visit.
Hang with me now. So we have a Previous Letter, 1 Corinthians is the second letter, Tearful Letter, a Painful Visit by Paul, and 2 Corinthians is the fourth letter. 4 letters and 1 visit in between.
If the central theme of the book of Romans is the gospel, the central theme of 1 Corinthians is the church. We saw how these two — the gospel and church — are linked together in Romans. You start with the gospel where an individual is saved by the power of God and delivered from slavery to sin and the byproduct is a gospel-centered church where walls of hostility that divide are brought down and there is unity as Jewish believers and Gentile believers at Rome love each other and develop a sense of belonging to one another as members of the body of Christ.
When the gospel is effective, it results in a gospel-centered church. (REPEAT). There is no such thing as a singular, lone ranger Christian who says it’s just between me and God. If that’s yoou, then you don’t know your Bible. That’s not Biblical. That’s just not how it works. There is a personal aspect of our relationship with God but there is also a corporate aspect of Christian life expressed in a local church context and both are integral parts of the gospel and salvation.
I believe Paul’s thesis statement in his letters to the Corinthians is something like this — a right understanding of the gospel leads to a healthy, gospel-centered church while a wrong or distorted understanding of the gospel leads to an unhealthy church.
At Corinth, we see clearly how a wrong view of the gospel results in a church gone wrong. So if there is a problem at a church, we need to assume that somewhere along the way, their understanding of the gospel has gone awry. I believe that all church problems originate with a wrong understanding or an unconscious distortion of the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul raises approximately 11 different concerns — 10 are behavioral and only 1 is theological. Only in Ch 15 does Paul discuss the bodily resurrection to highlight a theological deficiency in the Corinthian understanding of the gospel. Every other issue is behavioral.
At a high level, Paul’s concerns include things like: division in the church around leadership, division between richer members and poorer members, loose ethics pertaining to sexuality/marriage, how to conduct an orderly worship service, church discipline and how churches ought to deal with blatant and unrepentant sin among its members, a definition is given of what constitutes spirituality, and related to that, spiritual gifts and how such gifting fits into the overall health of the church.
Recall what I said earlier: a right understanding of the gospel results in a healthy, gospel-centered church. Putting a derailed church back on track is the main thrust of 1 and 2 Corinthians. That is why 2 images for the church emerge from these letters. First, the local church is the temple of God. It’s a place of purity and holiness. It is sacred and set apart from the world to God and for His glory. Second, the local church is the body of Christ. It’s a place of unity where we are all members who belong to one another. That is the point that Paul wants to drive home to this immoral, tolerant, divided church at Corinth — you guys have to get back on track. What is the solution to get back on track? Simply put, they have to return to the very gospel that saved them.
So this is a book filled with human drama and emotion, letters written in tears, painful visits and at stake through it all is the gospel. Will this church retain the pure gospel that they received or will they morph and change and distort the gospel to fit in and accommodate the society in which they lived?
Corinth was like a first century version of New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas. And esp. as a church in LA, we really need this book. And I pray that it may serve as a warning to us, LBC Pasadena, of the dangers of being a church in this kind of city.
For the church of Corinth, the church was in many ways a reflection of the city. And over the course of our study through these 2 letters to the Corinthian church, we will begin to see how the city was influencing the church in harmful ways, rather than the church acting as an agent of change for good and affecting the city in which it resided.
What about us? Is LA changing us, and its culture and values shaping our church, OR is LA, Pasadena, Alhambra, Irvine, is our presence making a difference to change the places in which we live for good because of the power of the gospel? The longer we live here, is there more of LA in us, or is there more of Christ in LA? That’s one way we need to keep examining our effectiveness as a church. We got to care for one another and love one another but that is not the end in itself. We are here to be a city on a hill proclaiming the name of Jesus to our friends and neighbors in the greater LA area.
Matthew, in his gospel, the fifth chapter, 13th verse, calls Christians to be the —
Matt 5:13 – “…salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
Paul is trying to get Corinth — it’s culture, its value system — out of the Corinthian church so that they can be effective salt of the earth and retain its saltiness over the long haul so that those whom they encounter would thirst after Jesus.
Where would we be without 1 Corinthians? That would be a frightening thought because this letter offers a treasure trove of wisdom for church life and its mission to the world.