To Christians in Corinth – Paul founded the Church in Corinth during his second missionary journey. See Acts 18. He stayed 18 months. He is very familiar with this congregation. The only place we know for sure he stayed longer was Ephesus. Interestingly, we can see from both Acts and his letters, that these are the two congregations Paul seems most familiar with and appears to be closest to.
Corinth was not just an important trade city in the first century, it’s also a religious center, a tourist attraction, and a naval port. In modern terms, it’s a combination of New Orleans, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. It is a busy, prosperous and totally decadent place.
The Gospel was welcomed and embraced in Corinth, but from this letter, we can see, that the values of the city also made its way into the culture of the Church, creating some real challenges. Central doctrines were diluted and Godly morality was compromised. As we’re going to see, the Church in Corinth was as dysfunctional and organism as we will ever meet.
This first letter to the Corinthian congregations is pretty in your face. Where the letter to the Romans was somewhat general and ‘high level’ in its subject matter, 1 Corinthians is quite familiar and in your face. Paul is very candid and direct in dealing with the sin and rebellion in the Corinthian Church.
Frankly, 21st century Church leaders would do well to take a page out of Paul’s book and be less circumspect when dealing with our own congregational problems. Let’s take a look and some of the things he addresses.
Chapters 1-3 Paul focuses on divisions that were cropping up in the Church. In this case the divisions were centered around Christian Celebrities (Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus). Paul declares they are all wrong and reminds them that there are no celebrities in Christianity, only servants.
Unfortunately, Church splits have not decreased over the centuries. I wish I could count the number of Churches I’ve known that have divided angrily and have weakened their witness in their local community. I know a place in Texas where each corner of a particular intersection has a congregation that are all splits of a single Church. My second student ministry was with a split of a split. Wow, was that ever fun.
In Chapter 4, Paul defends his own ministry and his authority. You can hear his sarcasm when he says, I don’t care whether I’m judged by you or any other person.
Chapter 5 is one of the weirdest chapters in the whole Bible. Paul confronts the Church about a man in Corinth who is having an affair with his stepmother. Creepy.
Chapter 6 finds Paul addressing the fact that Church members are taking each other to court and that it’s a terrible testimony to the community.
After that he transitions to address sexual behavior outside of and inside of marriage. He defines marriage and appropriate sexual behavior very clearly. I know it’s unpopular to stand by a traditional view of sexuality and marriage, but who would know better than the creator of both, as to how it should work. (Story of Tim White and plane to Alpirod)
In Chapter 10, Paul switches gears and confronts some improprieties in worship. This discussion runs through chapter 14. During this time, he focuses on improprieties in worship like abuse of the Lord’s Table, and abuses of spiritual gifts. Chapter 13, the famous ‘Love Chapter’ is right in the middle of all this. The lesson is, if we love God and our neighbor, abuses will fall to the wayside.
In Chapter 15, the letter reaches a crescendo when Paul goes straight to the point that the resurrection of Jesus is the central point of Christian Doctrine. Apparently some people were falling in with the sadducees who say there is no resurrection. On the other side, some people were practicing ‘Baptism for the dead’. Paul uses the confusion and division in Corinth to drive home the point that Jesus resurrection is central in our beliefs, our preaching, and our hope.
Finally, despite all their problems, Paul never says the Corinthians have been abandoned by God or that they had fallen away from grace. No, he tells them he loves and misses them and hopes to come for a visit in the near future.
God’s grace is far bigger than our tendency to screw up. We should all rest in that hope. What a relief.
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