The Church in Corinth
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
This week I read the following article on the web:
Calvary Baptist Church, a progressive Baptist landmark in the heart of downtown Washington, has named a gay couple as co-pastors.
Sally Sarratt and Maria Swearingen were presented to the congregation during worship services Sunday (Jan. 8) and are set to begin their new jobs on Feb. 26.
A spokeswoman for the congregation said she didn’t know whether a gay couple leading a church was a first for Baptists.
“We look for the best people in the world and that’s who they were,” said Carol Blythe. “We’re very excited.”[i]
Calvary Baptist Church is very proud and happy about their choice. For us conservatives, this is quite shocking. We ask, “How has this come about?” However, this is nothing new. The Apostle Paul dealt with similar issues in the Church of his day. Paul, in his letter to the Church in Corinth said:
1I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. 2You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2, NLT)
In the Church in Corinth, a wise, understanding approach to morality and sexuality were a source of pride. They were so proud of themselves. We are no different. We are proud of our wisdom. By looking at what Paul says to the Corinthian church, we will confront the sources of conflict, immorality and false doctrines that have always plagued the Church.
At this time, I will look at the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians 1, and will take up the rest of the chapter in subsequent articles. In the opening of his letter, the Apostle Paul expresses His thankfulness, introducing himself as the author of the letter and the Corinthian church as the recipients. Then he takes us to the source of his confidence. This is the approach I wish to take. I will look first at the author, then at his recipients and finally at the source of his confidence.
First then, let us consider Paul.
In addition, we must also consider Sosthenes, because Paul lists him as a co-author. Most of us are familiar with Paul, but not with Sosthenes. Paul, as an Apostle, is in a unique position of authority. The Apostles spoke with authority that is passed down only in their writings. Their authority stems in part from the fact that they were personally trained and commissioned by Jesus. This authority is of utmost importance, and I want to look at it more in depth. However, Paul does not include Sosthenes to strengthen his authority.
We meet Sosthenes in Acts 18. Paul ministered in Corinth for a year and a half before persecution from the Jews in Corinth took on a violent form. Acts 18 lists Crispus as one of the Jews who accepted Jesus as Savior. Crispus was the ruler of the synagogue at the time, but was replaced by Sosthenes. At least, Acts 18:17 lists Sosthenes as ruler of the synagogue. Sometime after the events of Acts 18, Sosthenes apparently accepted Christ and we find Paul writing with Sosthenes who he calls “our brother.”
This is important because Paul is an outsider. As an outsider, he was vulnerable to the accusation of not understanding the culture. Sosthenes was not an outsider. He was one of the Corinthians. Paul uses a similar approach in a number of his letters, referencing others as being with him. He does this, not to strengthen his authority, but as a softening measure. By including local influence, he makes the authority by which he speaks more palatable, thus taking away the, “He doesn’t understand us because he is not one of us.”
Paul wrote with Divine authority. He points this out when he says, “…chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” The New Testament was written by apostolic authority. This is why Peter says:
…Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16, NLT)
We see in this passage that the Apostle Peter speaks of Paul’s writings as being Scripture. The question of authority is important, because it is the foundation on which we build our faith and practice. How are we to determine what is right and what is wrong? According to what we just read from 2 Peter, to distort the things of Scripture will result in our destruction. Jesus used the analogy of building with a firm foundation or with a foundation firmly planted in the sand.
Paul, by addressing his authority in the opening of his letter, is establishing his right and responsibility to address issues in the Church.
In 2 Peter 3:2, Peter starts out by saying:
I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. (2 Peter 3:2, NLT)
The phrase, “…what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles,” reminds us that we would not have a New Testament if it were not for the apostles. There are histories, such as those written by Josephus, that provide evidence that what the New Testament says is historically accurate. However, the actual teachings of Jesus are passed down to us in the writings of those who accompanied Jesus night and day for 3 years. Thus, we can be certain that Jesus said:
For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you. (Matthew 15:19-20, NLT)
Apparently, Jesus thought adultery and sexual immorality were just as wrong as murder, theft, lying and slander. Do we recognize Him as having authority to speak into our lives? Do we believe that He is God? What about His apostles? Do they have authority? Paul introduces himself as an apostle in order to establish his claim to authority and right/responsibility to write the letter. Therefore, he says with the authority of Jesus:
Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NLT)
There are several ways around this statement if we would like to justify our thievery or immorality. We can question its authority. We can question its authenticity or we can claim to have greater authority or wisdom. The Corinthians were doing all three of these, but chief among them was the greater wisdom that they claimed to have developed.
We have come now to the point that it is necessary to talk about who Paul was writing to: the Corinthians.
First, we see that the Corinthians were genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul says of them:
I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2, NLT)
They are called holy or saints, depending on which translation one uses. Paul also says that they have been given gracious gifts by Jesus and that God has enriched their church in every way. We can understand then that while Paul was writing to address problems and issues in the Church at Corinth, it was because they were fellow believers and saints that he was addressing the problems.
However, they were proud of things that according to Paul would keep them from inheriting the kingdom of God. Paul affirms that they were enriched in every way. And, it becomes evident in the letter that follows that they had become proud of this and considered themselves superior because of it. This pride became the source of divisions and many other problems in their fellowship.
Corinth was a trade city, and it was very prosperous. It lay in a position between Italy and Asia that allowed it to profit by the traffic along a major trade route. This also made it a multicultural and multiethnic center for that area of the world. This meant that the city was a crossroads for different ideas, religions, philosophies and vices. To behave as a Corinthian became euphemistic for behaving immorally.
Philosophically and morally, the Church in the United States has Corinthian-like influences. Our media, our schools and many of our churches have forsaken the authority of the Apostles and of the Lord Jesus Christ for what they perceive is greater wisdom and enlightenment.
Even so, we can have the same confidence that the Apostle Paul expresses in the opening of his letter to the Corinthians. We find this confidence in 1 Corinthians 1:7-9.
7Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. 9God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (NLT)
A summary statement would be, “Our confidence is in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” And, this is enough. However, three elements of this confidence are worth considering.
First, we have every spiritual gift we need.
The Lord has poured out His Spirit and gifts on the Church in full measure. We have gifted teachers, musicians, poets, scholars, pastors and ministries in abundance. We have excellent Bible translations, study materials and available resources in all formats in incredible variety and abundance. Radio programs, podcasts, YouTube and books beyond counting are available to us. The abundance of gifts and provision both physical and spiritual that God has poured out upon His Church in the United States is truly remarkable.
However, gifts are not all that we need. The second element in our confidence in God is His faithfulness.
Paul says, “He will keep you strong.”
What a tremendous promise. This promise is echoed in a number of places in the New Testament. A favorite of mine is Philippians 1:6, which says:
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. (NLT)
This promise of God does not mean that we will not go through refining, fiery trials. It means that God, in His faithfulness, will take us through whatever is necessary to refine, purify and sanctify us for Himself as a spotless bride.
It occurs to me to ask, “Do we want God’s gifts, or do we want God Himself?”
Oh, for a heart for God, to love Him with heart and soul and strength as I have been commanded! What treasure in life can compare with the treasure of knowing Jesus?
God is faithful. We can have full confidence that He will complete the work He has begun. But, it is important to realize what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.
12Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames. (NLT)
What am I building with? We must each ask ourselves this question.
Finally, a third element in our confidence is our calling. Paul says, “…he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Like Paul, we have a calling, a purpose.
Our calling, purpose and mission give us great confidence. My value is not found in superior wisdom or knowledge. It is not found in my gifts or in me at all. The calling of God fills my life with meaning, value and purpose. Such confidence comes from having confidence in God. This is why Paul could express such thankfulness even while writing to correct abuses, problems and divisions.
What is your confidence?