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Too Old For Milk: Studies in First Corinthians (Introduction)

11 Jan

The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday night, January 10, 2010.

Imagine a church wracked by divisions. Powerful leaders promote themselves against each other, each with his band of loyal followers. One of its members is having an affair with his stepmother, and, instead of disciplining him, many in the church boast of his freedom in Christ to behave in such a way. Believers sue each other in secular courts. Some members like to visit prostitutes, and as a backlash against this rampant immorality, another faction in the church is promoting celibacy, complete sexual abstinence for all believers, as the Christian ideal. Still other debates rage about how decisively new Christians should break from their pagan past. There are sharp disagreements about men’s and women’s role in the church which only further adds to the confusion. Class warfare is so bad within the congregation that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has turned into a drinking party for the wealthy with nothing left when the working class gets off from work. As if all this were not enough, alleged prophecies and speaking in tongues occur regularly, but not always in a constructive fashion. A significant number of these immature Christians do not even believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ.[1]What are we to do with the cast of this “Real Church Members of Hollywood” reality show? Surely we can learn nothing from such an immature and dysfunctional church, other than of course, to not be like them. But how shocked we might be to learn that the church described in the previous paragraph was actually a church started by the apostle Paul in the city of Corinth. If this were his only attempt at church planting, Paul’s denomination might have labeled him a failure and fired him for his low performance. Fortunately for him, he had better success in places like Ephesus. But in Corinth, this group of redeemed sinners had a horrible time growing up in the faith. When God called this group from the mud of paganism, they tracked dirt all over the new carpet at the First Baptist Church of Corinth. It was not a pretty sight.

The letter that we know as First Corinthians is one of the apostle Paul’s many attempts to lead them in the true path of the faith. In these sixteen chapters, Paul will teach the new believers in Corinth about everything from marriage to spiritual gifts to the doctrine of the resurrection. His words range from the very specific and practical to the confusing and universal. In this letter, we have one of the very first references to the Lord’s Supper and some of the clearest teachings about the resurrection from the dead. But, we also find instruction about speaking in tongues and eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Any study of First Corinthians forces us to do the hard work of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation or rightly dividing the Word of truth. It is properly understanding and applying the divine text. It is wrestling to understand Paul’s instructions about divisions in the church in light of our current debate over worship styles, Calvinism, denominational structures, and spiritual gifts. It is struggling to understand how to apply his instructions about lawsuits in the midst of a litigious age where almost all conflicts are solved through the legal system. How do we understand Paul’s preference for the single life when the modern church puts so much emphasis on family and parenting? What do we do with the teachings about women praying with their heads uncovered or not forbidding the speaking in tongues? Some of the problems in the church in Corinth are foreign to our 21st century experience, and yet some of them make the front page of the Baptist Standard on a regular basis. So, to study 1 Corinthians is to dive in the deep end, to refuse to be content with simply ripping texts out of their contexts, and to have the courage to face the realities that an honest examination of the Scriptures often bring, even though sometimes that may challenge what we think we believe.

The Church in Corinth[2]

Before we get to the text itself, let us take a look at the context and congregation who received this letter from the apostle Paul. The city of Corinth was a prominent city in southern Greece, even more so than the more well known Athens. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city of Corinth in 44 BC, and by the time Paul visited it, the city boasted a population of over 80,000 with an additional 20,000 living in nearby rural areas. The city was located on an isthmus, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water, that was narrow enough to allow sailors to drag their boats across the small strip of land rather than sailing around the dangerous coastline of Southern Greece. This meant that sailors on leave roamed the city, bringing with them all of the social ills that you can imagine.

When Paul visited the city, it was one of the wealthiest cities in Greece and a major, multicultural urban center. In fact, the church in Corinth may have been one of the few predominately middle class churches of the ancient world. The city had a massive stadium which hosted the Isthmian games every other year, a competition second only to the Olympics in prominence. In addition, citizens of Corinth could attend concerts at the 18,000 seat concert hall or go to see plays at the 3000 seat theater. Now, why is that important? Because one of the art forms on display in Corinth was public speaking, and gifted speakers were both admired and followed, not unlike the movie stars of today. Some of this affection infiltrated the church, and it shows up in the bickering over who was the better preacher.

There was a massive hill overlooking the town, much like the side of Mount Rushmore. On top of that hill sat the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The ancient Greek historian Strabo claimed that 1000 temple prostitutes worked the temple. No wonder the Greek word meaning “Corinthians Girl” came to be slang for “loose woman.” Other gods had a home in Corinth, too, such as Ascelepius, the god of healing, and Poseidon, the god of seafarers.

Corinth was also well known for its patrons, the wealthy and influential persons who took on individuals and families as their “clients.” Patrons provided land, jobs, money, and legal protection for the less well off, while their clients were expected to reciprocate with various services including political support. Since the Roman patronage system was laced with corruption and attracted serious social climbers, it is entirely possible that the divisions within the Corinthian church were caused by various patrons jockeying for influence. Sadly, a church full of people who are hungry to impress others and to climb a little higher up the scales of social approval will not be a church characterized by deep spiritual unity. The basic message of the gospel, that God’s grace is perfected in weakness and not in human strength, is hard to swallow in a community that delights in the privileges of wealth and the status of accomplishment.

Such was the city that Paul preached the gospel in during his second missionary journey.

Paul’s Relationship With The Church In Corinth

Paul arrived in Corinth sometime around 51 AD. It is possible to date his visit with such accuracy because Acts 18 speaks of Gallio as the proconsul of Achaia, an office he held for only one year. Paul remained in the city for 18 months, much longer than most of the cities he visited during his journeys. Perhaps the best way to get a feel for the letter he writes is to read the biblical account of Paul’s visit to Corinth in Acts 18.

1After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized. 9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. 12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. 13“This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16So he had them ejected from the court. 17Then they all turned on Sosthenes the synagogue ruler and beat him in front of the court. But Gallio showed no concern whatever. 18Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. (Acts 18.1-18 NIV)

So after 18 months of preaching the gospel in Corinth in the face of extreme resistance by the Jewish community, Paul left Corinth to continue the second missionary journey.

About three years later, in 55 AD, Paul was finishing up a three year stay in Ephesus where he was enjoying much fruitful work.[3] Paul had already written letters to other churches that he had started in Galatia and Thessalonica, and sometime in the last three years Paul wrote a short letter to Corinth. Unfortunately, this letter has been lost. We know he wrote it because he alludes to it in 1 Corinthians 5.9 (“I have written to you in my letter…”). It is often referred to by scholars as the “previous letter.” While we do not have the letter, evidently the content of the letter was that Paul instructed the church not to associate with immoral believers, though the church misunderstood and thought Paul meant immoral unbelievers.

After writing the “previous letter” and while he was still in Ephesus, Paul received a visit from some members of Chloe’s household, presumably a member of the church in Corinth, who told him of the divisions within the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 1.11). Afterwards, Paul received a letter from some or all of the church asking questions about specific issues that were dividing the congregation. So Paul writes a letter, what we call First Corinthians, to the church in Corinth addressing the problems brought up by the members of Chloe’s household and the questions brought forth in the letter. It seems that Paul has this letter in front of him when he writes what we call First Corinthians because he begins many of his instructions with the phrase, “Now for the matters you wrote about…” (see 1 Corinthians 7.1).

But this letter would not be the last contact or correspondence that Paul had with this struggling church. Timothy made a visit to Paul and reported that things in Corinth had not gotten any better even after his two letters. Hoping to correct matters, Paul made a “painful visit” to Corinth (2 Corinthians 2.1). Unfortunately, this visit was totally unsuccessful in resolving the issues. Paul left Corinth, and shortly wrote another letter, which is also lost, which is usually referred to as the “letter of tears” or the “severe letter” (2 Corinthians 2.4). We know about this letter because Paul refers to it in 2 Corinthians 2.4. Titus delivered this letter to the church in Corinth, and the letter demanded the punishment of those who had opposed Paul.

Leaving Ephesus, Paul continued his missionary journey. On the way, he received a good report from Titus that things in Corinth were actually going quite well. In response, Paul writes another letter to the church, a letter that we call Second Corinthians.

Summary

So, in summary, the church in Corinth was formed when Paul first brought the gospel in 51 AD. While many embraced the gospel message, they struggled to understand and to submit to it totally in faith. As we study this book, we will find that they are fighting over which church leader is the best preacher. They scoff at Paul because he worked as a tent maker instead of being a full time minister. At least one member was living in such immorality that even the pagans were shocked. Members of the church were suing each other in court. Some people were violating there marriage vows in adultery and others were insisting that celibacy was the only way to go. They were conflicted over whether or not to attend BBQ’s with food that had been sacrificed to idols. Their worship services were disrupted by gender issues, social class issues, and confusion over spiritual gifts. And to top it all off, some in the church were denying that Christ was raised from the dead. And through it all, Paul was still trying to motivate them to finish collecting the offering for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

What we will read is the efforts of an apostle to explain and ingrain the full gospel message into the hearts and minds of a group of immature believers who are struggling to grow up in their faith.

Paul’s Apostolic Introduction

With our short time that we have remaining tonight, let us read together Paul’s introductory words to this struggling church in Corinth. He wrote,

1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: 3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—6because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.  (1 Corinthians 1.1-9 NIV)

Exegesis of the Text

We have read enough letters in the New Testament to know what to expect in the introduction. We know the writer is going to identify himself and the recipients of the letter and then give some sort of greeting or blessing or well wishes. But in this case, since we know the gravity of the issues at hand, the way that Paul begins this letter is intentional. He is writing to a congregation that is resisting his leadership. He is writing a congregation that is less than holy in so many different ways. He is writing a congregation that is fighting over spiritual gifts. And, he is writing a congregation that is greatly confused about what happens when this life comes to an end.

So, it is rather remarkable that Paul opens this letter with such words as “sanctified in Jesus and called to be holy,” or “I always thank God for you,” or “you do not lack any spiritual gift,” or “He will keep you strong to the end,” or “God has called you into fellowship with His Son.” In those five statements alone, Paul describes the church as they ought to be instead of as they currently are. While called to be holy, they are not. While not lacking any spiritual gift, the gifts are not being effective for the building up of the body. And the fellowship of the body is in total disarray.

And here we see the genius and wisdom of Paul. He frames the confrontational words to come with the perfect calling of the church. Paul lifts up their eyes to see the bigger picture before getting down to the details of their failures. He reminds them of the greatness of God and the beauty of His bride before pointing out their own stumbling.

An Apostle…

Notice how Paul begins the letter. To a church that is questioning his leadership and authority, he reminds then that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1.1). He was not elected by the Corinthian personnel committee, but he was called by Christ Jesus Himself on the Road to Damascus. And even if the leaders in Corinth, or the Jews in the community, or anyone else rejected his role as an apostle, none of that would remove God’s calling on his life. In the light of incredible conflict, Paul stood firmly on the ground of what God wanted to do through his life. Just like God told the prophet Ezekiel, after giving him some very difficult words to say to the people of Israel,

But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. 8But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. 9I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.” (Ezekiel 3.7-9 NIV)

And one of the ways that the Lord made Paul “unyielding and hardened” in light of the congregation’s opposition is the confidence that he had in his calling as an apostle. His calling was not his idea, nor was it the idea of some of his advisors. No, his apostleship was the will of God, and Paul could not more reject that calling than we can reject the color of our skin. It is who we are, and Paul’s conviction of that gave him a solid foundation upon which to stand during difficult days.

Sosthenes…

Paul is not alone as he writes this letter. Sosthenes is with him, though there is no evidence that he is co-writing this letter with Paul. Sosthenes, as you remember, was the synagogue ruler in Acts 18 that was beaten by the Jewish mob. As we go back to that story, his beating doesn’t make a lot of since unless the mob felt he was somehow responsible for Paul’s ministry. Surely, if he had opposed Paul along with the rest of the Jewish leaders, they would not have turned on him and beat him. So, what is implied by the story and further validated by the introduction of First Corinthians, Sosthenes was at least open to the message of Paul, and most likely became a believer along the way. And here, a few years later, he is with Paul in Ephesus, presumably participating in his ministry in some way.

Sosthenes becomes one of the many “great unwashed” in the New Testament story. We know the stories of Peter, James, and Paul, but so many little guys like Sosthenes had such key roles that we will never know. Imagine how much influence Sosthenes could have had in Ephesus as he came alongside Paul in the synagogue. As a synagogue expert from out of town, the Jews would have given him their ear as he explained how he came to be convinced that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. The inclusion of his name in these opening words reminds us all to not despise our calling and influence. The world may never know our story, but the Lord has placed us in specific situations for a reason. Just as Paul was an  apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, so was Sosthenes a synagogue leader by the will of God. And even though it cost him dearly, Sosthenes accepted that calling and used his position to further the gospel.

Sanctified and Called to Be Holy…

Paul writes to “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1.2). This morning, we talked about how we live in the middle of Hebrews 10.14. We have been forever made perfect by Christ’s once and for all sacrifice and we are in the process of being made holy. Paul repeats that same principle here. We are both sanctified in Christ once and for all and called to live holy lives. To a church wrestling with such weighty matters, it was important for Paul to frame their Christian lives with this simple truth. If they claim to have been sanctified in Christ, then they should be pressing on to be made holy. There is no biblical ground or gospel ground to rest upon the sanctifying work of Christ without a conviction to grow in holiness. One who refuses to embrace the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God calls into question their salvation.

Together With All of Those Everywhere…

We should also notice that Paul puts the church of Corinth in perspective. They are not the center of the church universe, but they have been called “together with all of those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1.2). Local congregations always have to keep in mind that we are part of the larger body of Christ. When we gather together in Benbrook on Sunday mornings to worship the risen Lord, we do not do so in isolation. Believers all over the world, from North Dakota to North Korea, from West Virginia to West Africa, from Italy, Texas to the real Italy. The church is universal, and so is the gospel. We are not the first to wrestle with the implications of the gospel. We can learn from those who live in other corners of the world, and we can learn from the saints who have gone before us.

Thank God For You…

Somehow, despite all of the trouble this congregation has been to the apostle Paul, Paul is able to genuinely thank God for them (1.4). He is not thankful for their divisions, or for their doctrinal errors, or for their embarrassing immorality. Instead, he is thankful for them because they have been given grace in Christ Jesus. He is thankful for them because they are part of the Kingdom of God, warts and all. Of all the basic spiritual truths, this is perhaps the one that we struggle with the most of all, the struggle to love and appreciate those who are in the body of Christ who are difficult for us to love and enjoy. Sometimes that difficulty is because of personality differences, and sometimes that difficulty is because of gross immorality or vengeful strife. But we are family, and we can be thankful, like Paul, for each other because no matter what my problem is with another member of the body of Christ, Jesus Christ has extended them grace and invited them into the family. And if Christ wants them in His kingdom, then who am I to question His desire upon them? May we learn to be thankful for all who are in the body of Christ.

Enriched in Every Way…

In verse five, Paul turns from general opening words to laying a foundation for addressing the problems in Corinth. If I were writing this letter, I would stay away from such land mines like spiritual gifts, division, or doctrinal orthodoxy since I knew that these were weighty issues that I was going to have address later on in the letter. But Paul does no such thing. Right out of the box he affirms the fact that they have been enriched in every way, even in their speaking and in their knowledge (1.5). These are two things that are causing immense conflict in the church. They are arguing over who is the best preacher, over the speaking gifts of tongues and prophesy, and over their knowledge about spiritual things. And yet Paul affirms that they have been enriched in every way.

Upon what basis can Paul claim that they have been enriched in every way? Obviously, not because of the evidence in their lives. No, Paul’s basis for such high words is because “our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you” (1.6). In other words, when the gospel came to Corinth, many believed upon the name of Jesus. As a result, the Spirit of God came into the believers, pouring out His gifts and fruit. When that happened, Paul knew that they were enriched in every way because they had come to possess the greatest riches of all: Christ within. Now this is not to mean that they did not need to mature in their understanding and practice of the Spirit filled life, but what it does mean is that each of us, whether we are mature or not, have been enriched in every way, in all our speaking and in all of our knowledge. And if we read these words as weak and immature believers like the Corinthians, there is hope for us, too. We may not know and experience the riches of Christ in us, but the hope is that we have already been enriched in every way. What lies before us is not trying to get more of God but to let God show us how to allow Him to get more of us.

Do Not Lack Any Spiritual Gift…

Paul could say with confidence, to this congregation that was fighting over spiritual gifts, that they “do not lack any spiritual gift” (1.7), and that was certainly true. They may have lacked maturity in the use of these gifts, but they did not lack any of the gifts. One of the issues that we will certainly wrestle with in our study of First Corinthians will be the miraculous spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, miracles, healing, and prophesy. And while we will have to save the bulk of our discussion on this matter when we get to chapters twelve through fourteen, Paul does foreshadow that discussion with this simple statement. The Corinthian church did not lack any spiritual gift as they eagerly waited for the return of Christ. There is no hint here that some of the gifts will continue to be valid up until the return of Christ and some won’t. Here, it seems that all of the spiritual gifts will be present as the Corinthian believers eagerly await His return. There are great implications here, but we must save those for later.

God Will Keep You Strong To The End…

In verse 8, Paul encourages them with the promise that God will “keep them strong to the end so that they will be blameless on the day” when Christ returns. The mystery that surrounds the nature of our salvation shows up in so many places. Notice what Paul does not say. He does not say, “Keep strong so that you will be ready for the return of Christ.” No, he says, “God will keep you strong so that you will be blameless on the day Christ returns.” It is God’s work in us that keeps us strong, at least this is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1.8.

What confuses the matter is that in the same letter, Paul will later write, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.2). So, which one is it? Are we saved in the end because God keeps us strong (1.8) or because we hold firmly until the end (15.2)? The answer is both, and on some levels, that mystery may never be solved in my mind, but that is the biblical witness. In salvation, God has so radically changed me and made me knew that I want to cling to Christ to the end. But my want to is the work of Christ, but it is entirely my free choice, too. Somehow, Paul can say without shame, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Philippians 2.12-13). The fact that I want to hold fast to Christ is the evidence that Christ is holding fast to me. And as I struggle to hold fast to Him, I am encouraged by the fact that He is holding fast to me.

Fellowship With His Son…

One final word from this introduction. Paul writes, “God has called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1.9). One of the more popular phrases to describe what it means to be a Christian is having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” There are many ways to describe what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Bible speaks of being part of the redeemed, being saved, being a disciple, being a child of the King, being a soldier in the army of God, being a saint, etc. But in the last few decades, we have latched on to this phrase, personal relationship with Christ, and this verse is one of the reasons why.

But let us look at the context. To have a “fellowship with the Son” means more than to have a friendship with our next door neighbor. Fellowship among humans means to have dinner together, to give each other counsel and advice, to play tennis or board games, and to eat a lot of fried chicken, if you are a Baptist. But in the context of these nine verses, to have fellowship with Christ means that we have been sanctified in Christ and are in the process of being made holy. It means that we are exercising our spiritual gifts as we are eagerly waiting the return of Christ. It means that we long to be found faithful until the very end. Having a relationship with Christ is more than warm, fuzzy feelings as we read Guidepost or some other devotional magazine. These are not words to be thrown around flippantly. God has called us into fellowship with His Son, and that is no small calling.


[1] This paragraph is taken from the opening paragraph found in Craig Blomberg, NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 17.

[2] The information from the following introduction is from Blomberg’s commentary and An Introduction to the New Testament by Carson and Moo.

[3] 1 Corinthians 16.9.

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Posted by on January 11, 2010 in Sermons - First Corinthians

 

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