The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

A Virtual Tour Around Corinth: Understanding Paul’s Correspondence as a Whole and its Application

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth – a busy metropolitan cross road in the Roman Empire on the modern-day Greek peninsula. In his correspondence, he gave all sorts of encouragements, exhortations, rebukes and corrections. But the verse I find most amazing in all of Paul’s correspondence with the believers at Corinth is 1 Cor 1:10. Actually, it’s really only one word I find amazing – “brothers” (inclusive of women, please remember). This is not a mere formality, as a title may be used at the start of a letter. Paul refers to this group of believers as “brothers” another 20 times in his correspondence.[1] Paul is identifying himself with the believers in Corinth as sharing the same faith. By referring to the Corinthians as “brothers”, Paul is effectively saying, “Hey, I’m one of you guys!”. To understand why this was so amazing for Paul to refer to these believers in Corinth as brothers, we need to take a “virtual tour” of Corinth, and survey all that’s going on according to Paul’s correspondence. Perhaps you’ve seen some of these things before. But it also could be that you haven’t seen all of these scenes in one go before. So, buckle up. This is going to be quite a ride! 

At our first stop, we can see the vigorous competition of the popularity contest where various Christian leaders would be pitched against each other by their followers in a bid for social supremacy (1 Cor 3:4). The problem here is these divisions gave the impression that messages about the Gospel were distinct and there was no commonality between them.

At our next stop, we find sexual immorality going on. In fact, one man is said to be having sex with his father’s wife (5:1). The exact issue isn’t clear – whether it’s his mother or his father has remarried due to divorce or death. In any event, such relations were forbidden in both Jewish and Pagan traditions. Others had trouble controlling their sexual urges (7:9), while at the other end of the spectrum some took an ascetic approach and were avoiding sex (vv. 2–6).

At our next stop, we find believers suing the pants off each other in law courts (6:1–8). This was little more than one-upmanship. A way of gaining social status just as following different leaders was. The problem was, this hardly reflected the sanctification and justification they had received from Jesus (v. 11).

At our next stop, a non-believer has been inviting believers around for a BBQ (8:1–13). This was fine, until it was discovered that the BBQ meat had been part of a pagan sacrifice. Some believers were uncomfortable about this (v. 7). They didn’t want to give any validation to pagan beliefs, so from their own conscious, they refrained from eating the meat. Other believers were quite happy to eat the meat. They knew that pagan deities were nothing more than a fairytale (v. 5). What was the harm (v.8)? But for these people, their knowledge was more important than the impact that the actions had on others. So, they were actually causing the others to go against their conscious and stumble. In fact, some were even partaking in the sacrifice itself (10:14–22). This kind of thing just confuses God with demons (vv. 19–22) rather seeing him glorified in all things (v. 31).

At our next stop, there is some issue around the length of hair and head coverings (11:2–16). It’s not quite clear, but the best suggestions would seem to revolve around the flouting of conventional distinctions between men and women in terms of dress. While Paul teaches against conforming to the world (Romans 12:2), he is not interested in causing unnecessary offence by departing from social conventions.

At our next stop, there’s a celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–33). That sacramental meal that calls to remembrance and proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin, and on that basis a new community of grace would be formed. I need to tell you that this is what they are celebrating because you would never know from their behaviour. You see, some are stuffing their face with bread while others go hungry, and others are getting plastered on the wine while others go without. I know it’s hard for us moderns to imagine how someone can stuff their face with a solitary crouton and become drunk on a thimble of grape juice. But we need to remember that this was a full meal with real alcoholic wine. It would seem they were clambering over each other as the more “spiritual” members helped themselves to the bread and wine leaving the “not so spiritual” members in their wake. So much for being a community of grace! No wonder Paul said, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” (v. 20). What a mess! 

At our next stop, we come to the main event – the “Spiritual Olympics” (12:1–30)! Well, that’s what we might as well call it. All of them are trying to outdo each other in the spiritual gifts department. The disturbing thing is their exercising of spiritual gifts is more akin to non-believers than anything reflecting the gospel (v. 2). It would appear that some are identifying with their gift more than the giver. That they are deriving their worth from their giftedness rather than the love of God vividly expressed in Jesus’ blood. It’s all fun and games until someone is left out. That’s right, the highly gifted believers thought they could actually do without some of the less gifted believers. For these highly gifted believers, exercising their gifts is never about service or helping those who were less gifted. It’s all about showing off and climbing the “spiritual ladder”. It’s just a shame no one realises that first place is also a booby prize.

At our final stop, we find that some people were denying the resurrection of the dead. I know, it’s difficult for us modern believers to know how anyone can deny the resurrection. It’s so foundational to our hope. But with the manifestations of the spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, great works, prophecy, speaking other languages – even angelic languages – it’s understandable why some of them begun to think that they had already arrived! In fact, Paul taunts them earlier in his letter, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!” (4:8). The reality is that the Christian hope is far bigger, and far more glorious than the here and now in this life.

So, let’s have a recap of our virtual tour of Corinth. In the church at Corinth, we have factions around church leaders in a popularity contest, sexual immorality, the flexing of legal muscle, disregard for the conscious of other believers, the flouting of cultural norms, the disregard for other believers at the Lord’s Supper, the misuse and abuse of spiritual gifts, and finally the denial of the resurrection of the dead. If there was a church today that did half of these things, I’d steer clear of it. I’d be telling all my friends to do the same, and anyone in that church to leave. I would completely write them off as a church. I would conclude that they were on about something else other than the gospel. This is why I find Paul’s reference to them as “brothers” to be so amazing. That in all the mess, in all the chaos, in all the anti-gospel behaviour, he recognises that the grace of God given to the church at Corinth is the same grace that has been given to him. Instead of writing them off, he identifies with them as a subject of God’s grace.

That Paul identifies with them does not mean that Paul is indifferent to their conduct. These are big issues that need big resolutions. One by one, Paul addresses each issue, and grounds his response in the person of Jesus.

Concerning the rivalry and factions in the church, Paul reminds the Corinthians that Jesus is the foundation of the Christian community upon which everyone else must build (3:10–11). In other words, it is Jesus who gives the church its existence, coherence and identity.[2] To derive these from any other foundation – whether it be theological tradition, experience, praxis or rationality – is to build on a foundation that will not last (v. 14). This is not to deny a variety of denominations who are characterised by different theological traditions, experiences, praxes and rationalities. Indeed, there are different churches with their particular characteristics and their own issues in the New Testament. John writes to the seven churches giving each one a different evaluation (Revelation 1:4, 2:1–3:22). The Church (universal) is large enough to have disagreements (Acts 15:36–41), and to have different traditions (Romans 2:12–14; 14:1–2; 13–14 – the Jew with the Old Testament law and the Gentiles without the Old Testament law). However, should any of these characteristics be considered foundational, the defining factor of a church, including what church leader one follows, then that characteristic becomes a distraction from the church’s true foundation which is Jesus. Such a church forfeits its glory in being the temple of God by the indwelling of God’s Spirit (v. 16). So, Jesus remains foundational to the church, and no theological tradition, experience, praxis or rationality can substitute this (vv. 18–22). 

Concerning sexual immorality, Paul’s point is to say that Jesus’ death and resurrection has given believers a new beginning. This is referred to as Christ, our Passover Lamb, who has been sacrificed (5:7). To reach back into the past and bring old habits and practices into the new way of life is simply inappropriate. The idea being built upon here is one of leavened bread (vv. 6–7). Leavened bread consisted of using reserved dough which was made the previous week in the current batch of dough. This was done as a substitute for yeast. The week-old dough would then be fermenting. When the week-old dough was introduced to the new dough, it would cause the new dough to become fermented and rise in the heat. As useful as this practice was, it wasn’t hygienic as dirt and disease could be passed on from week to week.[3] This was possibly one of the reasons for God commanding his people to throw out any leaven from their homes once a year and to observe the feast of unleavened bread (Exo 12:14–20). By introducing the old ways of sexual immorality to the new life in Christ, this too would become an unhealthy mix. Therefore, Paul picks up this image of leaven again, and tells the Corinthians to throw out (or purge) the evil person from among them so as to avoid an unhealthy mix (1 Cor 5:13). 

The same point is made concerning suing the pants off each other. Paul reminds them of their status before God – that they have been washed, sanctified and justified (6:11). This means that they have made a clean break with their former way of life and had now been set aside for God’s purposes. This was made possible by what was revealed in Jesus – namely, the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection which is applied to the believer through the work of God’s Spirit. It simply does not make sense to flex one’s legal muscle against your adversaries and go up a few runs on the social pecking order when you have been set aside for God’s purposes. 

Concerning eating meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, in a sense, Paul seems to agree with those who take such liberties (8:4, 8). But the question is not what’s wrong or right. The question is what is helpful? For some at Corinth, seeing their fellow believers eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols was a real point of contention. It caused these believers to stumble and have their faith destroyed. This was the real issue. Paul recognised that those believers had a weak conscious, and these were people for whom Christ died (v. 11). So, to insist on rights over responsibility, to consider eating more important than the spiritual well-being of a fellow believer, is actually sin. It’s sinning against your fellow believer, and it’s sinning against Jesus who died for the fellow believer (v. 12).

Concerning the Lord’s Supper, Paul has to remind them, incredibly, what they are celebrating – Jesus’ death (12:26). As has been seen, Jesus’ death has been central to Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians. Using the Lord’s Supper to celebrate anything else was actually to eat and drink judgement on themselves. Instead, Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins was best reflected by how they treated the apparently lesser members of their church community and not turning the event into an opportunity to gorge themselves.

Concerning spiritual gifts, rather than seeing them as a sign that they are a cut above the “average Christian” (as though there could be anything average about being a Christian!), Paul tells the Corinthians something shocking. Spiritual gifts are temporal (13:8)! They don’t belong to the eschatological age – the time when Jesus will return and God will establish his kingdom. Spiritual gifts are for this present life, and this present life only. As spectacular and impressive as spiritual gifts are, they are of limited use. Instead, Paul tells them of a more superior way of showing their spiritual credentials, and it has nothing to do with doing (12:29). But it has everything to do with being – their character. If they want to show off their spiritual credentials, they need to show who they are in Jesus. Paul writes to them and says, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Then he goes on to talk about the priority of love – agapē love, familial love, describing it as patient and kind, not being envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not or insistent or irritable, not rejoicing in wrongdoing. Instead, love rejoices with the truth, and it bears, believes, hopes, and endures everything, and it never fails (13:8–12). Love is the cure-all for every issue that Paul has raised with the Corinthians. Little wonder Paul refers to love as the superior way.

But, Paul’s description of love is even more radical than this. Paul writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (13:13). Where spiritual gifts will cease, love, along with faith and hope will remain. Faith, hope and love will continue to exist. Whereas spiritual gifts are the stuff of this present life, love is the stuff of the eschaton. Love is a defining feature of the Kingdom of God. Love is the future Kingdom of God brought forward into the present. Paul grounds this in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus (ch. 15), which some of them were denying. He says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (v. 19). In other words, if your greatest hope as a Christian is to speak in tongues, or prophesy, or acquire knowledge, or become detached from physical desires, or climb up the social pecking order, or to stuff your face and get drunk at the Lord’s Supper, then you have missed the point and should be pitied more than anyone else. We may add some of modern trappings. If our greatest hope as Christians is to have a comfortable life, to become rich, acquire possessions, never get sick, then we really have missed the point, and we are to be pitied more than anyone else. But… the resurrection of Jesus changes all that. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is never far from his mind since this is what his apostleship is based on (vv. 3–9). It’s also the basis for the forgiveness of sins which leads to a new life (v. 17). As glorious as this life is along with our bodies, as much as we may rejoice in the temporal things of this present life, this is not the same glory that will be in the resurrection. Paul explains what is now perishable, dishonoured, weak, and natural will be raised is imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (vv. 42–44). In other words, the resurrected life will be so much more than the joys and glories of this present life.

None of this means that spiritual gifts are not without value in the meantime. Paul obviously thought that spiritual gifts, and in particular tongues and prophecy, were of value for the church at Corinth, and he spent a considerable time explaining their proper use (ch. 14). What, precisely, these spiritual gifts were and how these practices apply to the church today are the subject of considerable discussion. However, two things remain quite clear: firstly, spiritual gifts, in whatever form,[4] are for the building up of the church – they are for the benefit of the community (12:7;14:6, 12). Secondly, spiritual gifts can be abused, and be counterproductive for the task they are given (13:1–3). Spiritual gifts can only be fully appreciated when they are grounded in the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus where they are understood as part of a temporal glory which will pass away with the coming of the resurrection. 

As can be seen, the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus remains central to Paul’s thinking, and foundational to addressing the issues among the believers at Corinth. Paul does not look to “special knowledge” or “ecstatic experiences” or “gifts” as a solution to the issues. As has been seen throughout the letter, time and time again, Paul returns to the gospel. All the believers needed was a better acquaintance with what they have been taught. To understand how the Gospel applied to their situation.

So, what does all this mean for us?

Firstly, it means that the practices that were in place at Corinth are not necessarily to be replicated in the modern church. A lot of what was being practiced at Corinth was being practiced in error. If there was a church today that denied the resurrection, seldom would its practices be upheld as a model for other churches to follow. Yet when it comes to the church at Corinth, a resurrection-denying, little guy crushing, social status obsessed church, there are those who desire to replicate the practices of Corinth in the name of intimacy with the Spirit. To those who want to replicate these practices, I implore you, do not become obsessed with the Corinthian experience and practice. Instead, understand why Paul was raising these issues and why he responded the way he did. Understand that, without diminishing them as fellow-believers, Paul was pointing the believers at Corinth to a fuller, richer, deeper, higher, more profound spirituality than the one they professed. This was a spirituality based on love and expressed in relationships with each other.

Secondly, to those who profess to have knowledge, or experiences, or gifts: these are not without value. However, these are not markers of your salvation, or your maturity in Christ. It is easy for those with knowledge, or experiences, or gifts to look down at those who lack them. To even condemn them. This was precisely the Corinthian error! It was precisely for this reason that Paul had to defend his apostleship against the believers at Corinth (2 Cor 3) – the same one who brought the gospel to them in the first place (1 Cor 4:15)! It was inconceivable to the believers at Corinth that anyone who had been given the Spirit, anyone who had truly arrived, should suffer. That they should be beaten and struck, going about hungry, naked, and in danger. Yet, it wasn’t as though Paul was without the manifestations of the Spirit that believers at Corinth would recognise. Paul claimed that he spoke in tongues more than any of them, and he thanked God for it (14:18)! He also claimed to have had heavenly visions (2 Cor in 9:12). But he doesn’t use these gifts and experiences to certify his apostleship. If anything, he’s playing them down. Concerning his ability to speak in tongues Paul says, “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19). Concerning his visions, he refers to himself in the third person so as not to draw attention to himself (2 Cor 12:2). When he does draw attention to himself, it is in reference to his weakness – his low social status (2 Cor 12:5). Instead, Paul’s certification as an Apostle is the believers in Corinth themselves in the way they responded to the gospel (3:2). As to suffering and weakness, rather than being antithetical to the spiritual life, Paul argues that they are integral to the spiritual life (2 Cor 1:3–11), and they are the means by which God’s grace is manifest (2 Cor 12:9). This is something that needs to be emphasised: Instead of celebrating his ability to speak in tongues and the experience he’s had, Paul celebrates weakness. Paul celebrates insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (v. 10). In contrast to what the Corinthians believed, these are the means by which God’s grace is manifest.

What is to be replicated is the fuller, richer, deeper, higher, more profound spirituality that Paul was encouraging the believers toward. A spirituality that Paul calls the “superior way” (1 Cor 12:31). A way that is founded on love which expresses itself in patience and kindness; is absent in envy, boastfulness, arrogance, self-importance, irritability, resentfulness. Love that does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth, and that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Cor 13:4–7). It should be observed that all these attributes relate to a person’s character. Therefore, the manifestation of the Spirit is not found primarily in what a person can do. Rather, the primary manifestation of the Spirit is found in who a person is. Particularly in relation to other people – hence fellowship is vitally important for all believers, even the for the ones who are “seemingly weaker”. Of such believers Paul says that they are “indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22).

This emphasis on character is entirely consistent with Paul’s theology, and is not limited to his correspondence with the church at Corinth. To the church at Galatia he writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22). Again, all related to a person’s character. To the church at Colossae, Paul instructs them to put on the new self which is being renewed in the knowledge of the image of God. This putting on of the new self is then paralleled and equated with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness (or gentleness), patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and above all, love (Col 3:10, 12–14). Again, all related to a person’s character. To the church at Ephesus, Paul tells them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling by being humble, gentle, patient, forbearing, and unified in the Spirit (Eph 4:1-3). A person’s character features more predominantly in Paul’s teaching much more than spiritual gifts or abilities.

Therefore, while spiritual gifts, experiences, knowledge and theological traditions are of some importance, a person’s character and how they relate to others, even those of whom they have strong disagreement with – is of all surpassing importance. Character which is being generated by the work of the Holy Spirit that was availed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. For this is how God manifests his presence, his Spirit, and his grace. It is out of this character that’s being renewed that believers exercise their gifts to build God’s church on the foundation that Jesus laid. This is the lesson that believers at Corinth needed to learn. This is the lesson that believers today need to learn.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:26; 2:1; 3:1; 7:24, 29; 10:1; 11:33; 12:1; 14:6, 20, 26, 39; 15:1, 50, 58, 16:15; 2 Corinthians 1:8; 8:1; 13:11.

[2] Thiselton, 310.

[3] Thiselton, 400. Fee, 216.

[4] Note that spiritual gifts are listed in Paul’s correspondence to the church at Rome (Rom 12:6–8). Within the Corinthian correspondence, the list of spiritual gifts also varies slightly (1 Cor 12:7–10. Cf. v. 28). This suggests that the list of spiritual gifts are not exhaustive.

July 3, 2021 - Posted by | Bible, Bible Exposition, Religious | , ,

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