Crisis in Corinth
Crisis in Corinth
1 Corinthians 1:1-17
by William Klock
Today we’re starting a new study of St. Paul’s first letter to the Church of Corinth – a church with a whole lot of problems. In chapter 6, verses 9 to 11 he says this:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.
Ouch! The apostle writes to them and lists all these sins and says, “And such were some of you.” I’m sure if the list of sins went on, he could have said, “And such were all of you.” This might be a little bold of me, but I want to read that list again and ask you to stand up if one of those things described in Paul’s list once described you.
We could make the list longer and every one of us would have to stand, but I bet even his short list covers most us pretty well and probably on more than one front. I’ve been greedy, I’ve been a thief, I’ve been a reviler and swindler. I may not have committed outward adultery, but I’ve done it in my heart and I bet there’s not a man here who hasn’t done the same at some point.
The Corinthian church was made up of people who came from some seriously messed up and sinful backgrounds – so we’re in good company if we’re going to let what St. Paul said to them speak to us too.
It didn’t help that Corinth was itself a moral cesspool. Corinth had sat for centuries on the narrow strip of land that connects the northern and southern halves of Greece and it controlled all the trade that went across that strip by land, north to south, but also all the sea trade between east and west. Ships came in one side, unloaded, and then ships on the other side were reloaded and carried the cargo on – and Corinth, in the middle got very rich. It was one of the centres of a cult devoted to Aphrodite, the goddess of sex, and her temple was said to be staffed by a thousand priests and priestesses, who also happened to be prostitutes – that was how people worshipped Aphrodite – with illicit sex.
In the Second Century the Romans destroyed the city, but Julius Caesar re-established it, making it a Roman colony. In short order it was back to its old Greek reputation as the centre of immorality, but under the Romans it became even more messed up. On top of the old Greek traditions, under the Romans, pagans from all over the Empire moved in and setup all sorts of other pagan cults and practices. In the ancient world, “Corinthian” had become a sort of slang word for someone who was degenerate. That was the culture from which these Christians had been called. St. Paul’s starts the letter saying:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.
We know from Acts that Sosthenes had been the ruler of the synagogue at Corinth. That was where Paul had first setup shop when he had started the church in Corinth about five years before this. When the Jews kicked out the Christians, they moved into a private house next door. Eventually Sosthenes was driven out of town and is now with Paul in Ephesus in Turkey. He goes on:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Not long before, St. Paul had written a letter to the Corinthians. We don’t know the full content, but a big portion of it was a rebuke telling them not to keep company with those who fell into sexual immorality. As a result of that letter, a group of men had come from Corinth to visit him at Ephesus and they brought word of even more problems. They also brought Paul a letter from the church that included a list of questions for the apostle. First Corinthians is St. Paul’s response to that letter and the reports he was given.
First Corinthians is different from Paul’s other epistles in that it doesn’t start with a long doctrinal treatise. Most of the other epistles start out that way before getting into practical matters. In this letter he jumps right into addressing the problems in the church. In fact, he starts out in his greeting: “Paul, called by God to be an apostle…” He had to start out with that because one of the problems was that some in the church questioned Paul’s authority because he wasn’t one of the “The Twelve.”
Verse 2 tells us something too. He addresses them as “sanctified in Jesus Christ.” Usually he greeted churches based on their justification, but here he refers to people who have been sanctified. You see, “justification” refers to our being made right with Christ. It’s sort of a legal term. We were guilty of sin and due to be punished, but through Christ, we are now free from that debt – because we have been justified – literally “made just.” Sanctification refers to our being made holy. Justification happens once at a specific point in time – when you make Jesus your Lord and Saviour. Sanctification is what continues on after that – sanctification is the visible result, the change that takes place in us. St. Paul refers to this with the Corinthians because their behaviour was in question.
Verse 2 closes with a reference to Christ: “both their Lord and ours.” That was important, because the Corinthian church was breaking into a bunch of factions as this group and that group started following after men. Paul emphasises the centrality of Christ – something they’d forgotten.
Paul starts with the good news in verse 4:
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 spiritual 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. (1 Cor. 1:4-8)
This was a sound church in a lot of ways. First, they understood that they were saved by grace. They had been pagans, but they had been born again by God’s grace. They weren’t struggling with legalism. There were no questions over ritual like the Colossians had or circumcision like the Galatians had or wrestling with “dead works” like the Philippians. No. The Corinthians actually had the opposite problem. They had accepted God’s grace in such a way that they didn’t think it really made any difference how they behaved. That was the core problem.
The Corinthians were sound in doctrine. No problems there. And there was no problem with a lack of being equipped. He says, “in every way you were enriched in…all speech and all knowledge…so that you are not lacking any spiritual gift. That word “enriched” in Greek comes from the word for Pluto – the god of wealth. They were wealthy in spiritual equipment, and especially so in the word of God and in knowledge of that word. They knew God’s word and they understood it. They could discuss and argue theology with the best.
On top of that Paul says, they weren’t lacking in spiritual gifts. They had gifts of miracles and healing, teaching and tongues, knowledge and leadership. It was all going on in Corinth. I don’t think any of them wanted miss church, because who knew what might happen as the Spirit manifested himself in these gifts.
Even more so, not only were they orthodox in doctrine and equipped spiritually, their expectation was right. They were waiting for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. They knew that when he came he’d make his spiritual kingdom a physical reality. They weren’t trying to bring the kingdom by their own works or earn status and favour with God by their works. They understood that was Christ’s mission.
But in verse 9 Paul changes the subject to talk about the fellowship that they’re lacking:
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is the central point of the letter. God had called these people into relationship with himself through Jesus Christ, but they’d forgotten this – and that was the reason for all their problems. They didn’t understand the implication of their calling and of the relationship they had with Jesus. The result was divisions, scandals, lawsuits, immorality, drunkenness, fights, and a host of other problems. They had full provision to live as they were supposed to, but they were failing. They had the ability given them by the Spirit to do amazing things in their city, but instead of going out and making an impact on Corinth, Corinth was making an impact on them. Despite their sound doctrine and the miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, there was little manifestation among them of the power of God. They were failing at a critical point, but it’s the same point where so many churches are prone to failure. And so Paul writes not only to them, but to us, reminding us what is means to have fellowship with Jesus Christ.
That fellowship is the work of the Holy Spirit. As we saw last week, God has sent him to take the things of Christ and make them known to us so that we can apply them daily. That’s St. Paul’s point here: Christ made real to the heart, able to satisfy hungry souls; Christ providing the power to meet the demands of the law and love of God. You see, fellowship with Christ isn’t just about having direction in what to do, it’s also dynamic – it shows us how to do it! Too often we seek direction from the Lord, but we forget that he also he gives us the power to do what he says. He not only gives us guidance, he gives us resources to do it. We go to the Bible for guidance – that’s where God speaks to us – but he also undergirds us with his fellowship through the Spirit so that we can do what the Bible tells us to do. He gives a programme to the Church, but he also gives us the power to carry it out.
The problem is that we often forget about that undergirding work of God. The end result is Christians who recognise the Lord on Sunday when they go to church, but spend Monday through Saturday on their own, with no real recognition of his presence with them. He’s no longer Lord of their lives, but of one small compartment. We forget that real worship isn’t about what we do here on Sunday, but about living in such a way outside these walls, that we give him glory and draw unbelievers to our light.
This was the problem at Corinth. They had a lot of stuff right – in fact a lot of critical and important stuff right – but they were missing the key. They’d forgotten the Lordship of Jesus Christ and their fellowship with him. Think about the implications of that. The first problem that Paul addresses is the divisions that were tearing apart the Corinthian church: one faction was of Paul, another was of Apollos, another was of Peter, and another group self-righteously tried to one-up them saying they were of Christ, brushing aside all the apostolic teaching and leadership they’d had. But these people were suffering these divisions ultimately because they had lost sight of the Lordship of Jesus. They were leading immoral lives – in some cases grossly immoral – because they had forgotten that the members of their bodies were, through the Holy Spirit, united to Christ and member of him too. They were dragging each other into the courts and before civil magistrates because they had forgotten that Jesus was judge of the innermost motives of the heart. They were arguing and fighting with each other because they had forgotten that those others were members of Christ’s body and, therefore, they were all members one of another. The list goes on, but in each case, St. Paul deals with all of these problems, healing the hurts, by simply calling the Corinthians back to an awareness of fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning we all have a perfect opportunity to be aware of the fellowship we have with Jesus Christ as we come to the Lord’s Supper. As we do, take some time to reflect on what it means to be united with him. St. Paul addresses this very issue within the context of the Lord’s Supper, because the Corinthians were struggling at this very point. They’d turned it into an automatic or mechanical performance and in doing that they lost sight of its real meaning. In fact when they gathered for Communion it became an opportunity for them to indulge in selfishness, for some to lord their higher social standing over others, and for some to be gluttonous and even become drunk. St. Paul calls them back to an awareness of their fellowship with Christ. We need to be reminded of the same thing – we have the same fellowship that they did. There is no sacrament or ceremony of the Christian life better suited to remind us of who Jesus is and of what he does for us as a people than the celebration of his body and blood given for us.
As we take and eat these elements of bread and wine, sacramental signs and seals of his body and blood, we are reminded that he died for us, that our old life died with him on the cross and was buried in the tomb. The bread and the wine remind us that when we came to Christ, our old life ended. That old life is worth nothing in the sight of God. It has no value. It can’t do anything for us. It can’t help us. We can go back anytime we want, pick it up, and start living that old life again, but if we do it will be of no value. Our old lives are good for nothing but pain and sorrow and misery. Every time we come to the Lord’s Table we ought to be reminded of this fact.
But the body and the blood are also a reminder to us that we have new life. Yes, we died with Christ, but that’s not the end. He also give us new life as we are united to him. We feed on him. He is our life. We feed on Christ in moments of doubt. We feed on Christ when we face temptation and feel pressure to pickup the old man and fall back into our old way of living. We feed on Christ when we want to show his love, but have no capacity to show that love in and of ourselves. It’s that experience of the presence of the Lord Jesus that the bread and the wine are intended to give us as we come to the Table.
I know it’s often easy to come to the Table some weeks and to come without really thinking about what we’re doing. It’s easy to forget that before we come we need to examine ourselves – to confess our sins and to make right with others what we’ve made wrong with our actions. We come to the Table automatically, often forgetting or not thinking about the fact that here, in the bread and in the wine, we meet our risen Lord. And so I urge you to think about these things this morning as we come to the Lord’s Table. As you come, remember that God is faith. He is the one who has drawn us to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, and given us his Spirit so that we can be united with his Son – not just to find salvation from the consequences of our sins, but to be brought to new life and to be enabled, undergirded, and strengthened to live that new life.
Please pray with me: Almighty God, on this Trinity Sunday, the day set aside to celebrate you as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that we would know what you have done for us, remind us that you have not merely called us, but that you have sent your Son, and that you have not only sent your Son to redeem, but have also sent your Spirit to empower and strengthen. Give us the grace to remember always that you have equipped us for every good work, equipped us to faithfully follower your Son and to be conformed to his image, that we might be salt and light in the world in which we live. Keep us faithful to your calling that we might draw men and women to you, through your Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.