“What do [you] do when there are church troubles?
Grumble and gripe. Run from those brethren by
moving to another church? Maybe pull off and
start a new congregation, which has no fellowship with the old one.
Maybe just give up on the church altogether and then excuse
your behavior by saying, “It's because of all the turmoil in the
congregation.” The apostle Paul reacted differently.
When he worked with the troubled church in Corinth , he was
determined to do everything within his power to help resolve the
problems, to restore unity, and to see that none of the members
perished! We can learn a great deal from his
approach and inspired counsel. ... Corinth was hardly an ideal or
perfect church. ... Yet that body of struggling, carnal, and
imperfect people was God's church in that city.
Thank God for His patience with His people. ...
And thank God for Christians who will stay, work through problems,
and rescue a church from ruin” (Shelly). Today's
lesson has four parts. First, we're going to look
at Paul's initial work in Corinth , then we'll look at some
background for the letter of 1 Corinthians, then we'll look at six
descriptions found in the letter's opening, and then we'll note
seven commands found in the letter's final verses.
Now let's look at Paul's initial work in Corinth , which is described in the book of Acts. At the close of Acts 17, we discover that Paul did not convert many people in Athens . Chapter 18 tells us that he decides to go to the prosperous, proud, busy, intellectual, and immoral city of Corinth . As he entered it, pagan temples could be seen everywhere. Just inside the northern city wall was the temple to Asclepius, the god of healing. Near the forum was a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. At another end of the forum was a temple to the emperor built by Tiberius. On the tall lookout mountain near Corinth , there was another temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which employed one thousand male and female prostitutes (McRay). The Isthmian Games, held every two years, drew many athletes, and especially honored Poseidon, the god of the sea (Wikipedia). The city was a melting pot for Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians, Egyptians, and Jews (Morris). When Paul arrived, the Jewish population there had swelled because many expelled from Rome had made their way there (Acts 18:2). Among these were two tent-makers, Aquila and Priscilla, to whom Paul joined himself. Paul began his usual strategy of preaching in the synagogue which was there and was very successful in converting both Jews and Gentiles. The synagogue officials eventual oppose Paul, and Paul begins to concentrate just on reaching the Gentiles in a house, which was conspicuously and conveniently right next to the synagogue. The ruler of the synagogue actually converted, and so do many of the pagans (note v. 8). The “ Las Vegas ” of the Roman Empire had become Paul's most productive mission point yet! Paul has a vision where Jesus tells him to keep on preaching, so Paul stays there 18 months, with more conversions, before trouble is stirred up by the Jews again. A new Roman ruler named Gallio is appointed in 51 A. D., and the Jews decide to press charges against Paul before him. Gallio thinks the case involves no real crime, but matters involving the Jewish religion, so he immediately dismisses the case. Paul then leaves Corinth , but not long after, a gifted preacher named Apollos is sent there, and he is very effective in building up the church (vv. 27-28).
Some more background as to why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians helps us to better understand some of the problems that had developed in this troubled church. Acts 19 shows us that Paul had moved to Ephesus . Apollos' style of preaching had greatly impressed some of the brethren at Corinth , and they actually began to form a little clique that said he was a better preacher than Paul. Somewhere along in here, the apostle Peter must have made a visit to Corinth . Some members were so impressed with him that they formed another clique and said that he was the best preacher. At some point, one of the men in the congregation began having immoral sexual relations with his own stepmother! We might wonder, how could these members go astray so quickly? We must remember that they had not been Christians for very long, and in many ways, they were probably still influenced by their culture. In fact, one commentator makes this good observation: “Since Paul nowhere implies in 1 Corinthians that the Corinthian problems were introduced by outsiders, the most reasonable course to follow in evaluating the origin of the Corinthian issues is to investigate ... the religious and cultural perspectives which shaped the beliefs and practices of those whom Paul addressed in this letter ...” (Oster). To understand the problems and sins, we must try to understand what was being promoted in their pagan religions and in their local culture. Somehow, Paul heard about the immoral situation at Corinth . A little later, Paul learned more through some visits by other members from Corinth . Three men, Stephan’s, Fortunes, and Achaicus (16:17), were probably the brothers who brought a letter with many questions that the church members had written to Paul. These three brothers probably told Paul of other problems too. Some more brethren, who were a part of Chloe's household (1:10), also told him about the cliques and the contentions they were causing. Paul was also in the midst of trying to raise funds from the Gentile churches to help some Jewish brethren in Palestine who were suffering from a famine. The church in Corinth had agreed to help, but they had not finalized their gift. With all these problems going on in the church at Corinth , Paul must have been very concerned about them. So Paul begins to dictate a letter (around 54 A. D.), and Sosthenes (a Christian once beaten in Corinth , Acts 18:17) begins to write down his teachings. Someone has rightly noted: “Thus Paul wrote the epistle we call 1 Corinthians and developed the theme [of] righteous living as the people of God at great length. He called on his brothers and sisters at wicked Corinth to live up to their status in Christ, rather than fall back to the sorry level of their [pagan] life” (Shelly). With this background, now let's move on to the letter's introduction.
“Was Paul grieved by the problems at Corinth ? Of course. ... Did doctrinal error threaten the church's identity in that great [evil] city? Yes, indeed. So how did he begin his letter” (Shelly)? You might be very surprised. Here is how he did NOT begin: “Paul called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the wicked and sinful stinkers who call themselves Christians at Corinth , to those who are arrogant, factious, unstable in the faith, immoral, selfish, and just downright foolish! May fire and brimstone from God and Christ fall upon you! You are an accursed bunch who doesn’t know how to take your Christianity seriously! You brood of vipers, when are you finally going to catch on and quit letting Satan rule your lives! Why if you sorry excuses for disciples can't shape up, then I may just have to renounce and disfellowship all of you and stop writing, stop visiting, and stop praying for you! When are you weaklings going to buck up, grow up, put up, and pray up?” No, no, aren't we thankful that Jesus' apostle to the Gentiles took another route? Let's see what he did say, and you're going to discover that there are no condemnations, no rebukes, no threats. It is interesting that Paul doesn't give them much praise, but he does remind them of what Christ has done for these imperfect saints and shows how that should help them to have a holy self-image. “Have you ever noticed how children tend to live up to the names you give them? Call one 'clumsy,' and he probably will be. On the other hand, call her 'thoughtful,' and she will often follow through” (Shelly). Paul begins with some descriptions that are very positive and affirming. You see, “if Paul could foster a positive self-image [about] the spiritual status of these members, he would be in a better position to challenge them to live differently” (Shelly). So let's look quickly at six descriptions that we find in these opening verses.
First of all, Paul says they have been sanctified in Christ: “Paul called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This description reminds us of both conversion and a continuing relationship. Paul reminds the members at Corinth of their conversion with these words in 6:9-11: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God ? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God . And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified [and there's our word in verse 2], but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” When were these members at Corinth washed, sanctified (set apart or made holy), and justified (or made righteous in God's eyes)? All these things happened at their baptism! We too have been cleansed, and we are continually being made righteous through the blood of Jesus Christ. Aren't we thankful that we have been sanctified and continue to be made holy in Christ?
Secondly, those in Corinth and we too have been blessed by Christ with God's grace. Verse 4 states: I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus.” “[Paul] gives thanks, not for what the Corinthians have done, [but for what Christ has done through God's grace, which He gave to them]” (Morris). A poet explains it well: “'Do this and live!' the Law demands, but gives me neither feet nor hands. A better word God's [good] grace brings; Christ bids me fly, and gives me wings” (modified Wuest in Swindoll). God's grace had turned Paul around too. He tells about this in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10: “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God . But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” One author gives us this good reminder: “Jesus is the mediator who brings together two lovers who have drifted apart and for whom life can never be complete until they are in fellowship again. God, being love, needs man. Man, being weak and sinful and helpless, needs God. And Jesus is the mediator, the middleman, who standing in the midst, draws man and God together again” (Barclay). Aren't we grateful that we have been blessed by Christ with God's grace?
Thirdly, Paul notes that those in Corinth had been enriched by Christ to proclaim and to know His salvation. Verse 5 states: “that you were enriched in everything by Him in utterance and all knowledge ...” Remember in our last sermon how we saw that Paul sometimes accommodated to the culture? Here is another example of that happening. The people of Corinth really admired those who could give an eloquent speech and those who showed that they had great philosophical wisdom. Paul says that these Christians have been enriched by Christ in utterance and all knowledge. Utterance means proclamation, and these brethren were now prepared through Christ to share the Gospel with others! They would be His “orators”! They also had been prepared with a new knowledge—the new wisdom of salvation found in Christ. Note 1:22: “For the Jews request a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks [and us too], Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Aren't we joyful that we have been enriched by Christ to know His salvation in order to proclaim His Gospel?
Next, Paul says that the members at Corinth have been gifted through Christ, and they are awaiting His coming. Notice how the text reads beginning in verse 6: “even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly awaiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul starts planting some seeds that will later grow into a discussion about spiritual gifts in three chapters of this letter. Right here, though, Paul wants them to realize that the preaching about the spiritual blessings which Christ gives has come true since none of them is lacking in any spiritual gift. All Christians are gifted through Christ, and that confirmation of Christ's blessing will continue all the way until Christ comes again! We have been confirmed once with the gifts of His Spirit, but we will be confirmed further when His gift of heaven also becomes our reward! Aren't we excited that we have not only been gifted once by our Lord, but we will be gifted again when time comes to an end and eternity begins?
Next, Paul says that members at Corinth will be upheld by God. The text really makes a profound affirmation in verse 9: “God is faithful.”
It is interesting that this affirmation follows right on the heels of Paul's statement that the members of Corinth will be found blameless at the final judgment! What a great self-image Paul was establishing here!
Remember, these are the imperfect Corinthian members! One commentator states: “The thought is that God, having begun a good work in the Corinthians, would not change His purpose of leading them into eternal life. Bad as conditions were with the church at Corinth , God's purpose would continue to be operative on their behalf” (Coffman).
Aren't we strengthened in knowing that we do not serve a fickle god, but the living God Who will uphold us because of His faithfulness?
The last description that Paul uses is “called by God into the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9). Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18 that He would build His church, and He shed His blood and gave His Spirit to bring it into reality on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2! Now all peoples and races can be a part of the fellowship that Christ provides. “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. ... Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (3:11, 16)? The members at Corinth didn't need the association they could find at pagan temples. God has provided them and us a new fellowship of which Jesus is the foundation, and we are all now the true international temple in which the Spirit of God is to dwell! There is no other fellowship in this world like this divine fellowship! Aren't we awed that we, and all members, have been united together by God through Christ?
Now let us turn to the ending of the letter. You can tell much about a letter by reading its introduction and conclusion. How would you conclude a letter if you had to write to a troubled congregation? Again, the apostle Paul must have inspired to wrap up this letter as he did. Notice what he says in 16:13 where we find four commands: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong!” Someone has rightly noted: “Each element of this exhortation is particularly appropriate in calling to mind the central themes of the letter. 'Watch' or 'Be on your guard' – against falling into the sin of arrogance [and against being deceived by those who deny the resurrection]. 'Stand firm in the faith' – focusing on the Lord rather than on His human preachers [and on relinquishing your rights and serving one another unselfishly]. 'Be men of courage' – being a responsible soldier in the Lord's army, and acting as adults and mature believers rather than [quarreling and indulgent] children. 'Be strong' – [staying loyal to Christ and resisting your pagan culture]” (Shelly)! Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong! These are commands we all need to practice.
Now notice Paul's command to submit and support good leaders in verses 15-18: “I urge you, brethren—you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the fruitfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints—that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunas, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.” “It is always helpful to have a good example to follow” (Morris). And Paul finds such an example in Stephanas and the two other brothers who had traveled with him to see Paul. If some of the members at Corinth in their cliques thought that this group was mistaken in going to Paul for help, Paul let's them know that the visit had been nothing but positive. It refreshed him, and hopefully, Paul's letter would be an encouragement to them. So Paul exhorts these members to follow these men in their actions. We also need to be submissive and supportive of good leaders!
Paul admonishes the Corinthian members and us to love each other in verses 14, 20, and 24: “Let all that you do be done in love” is a beautiful summary of chapter 13! “It was the members' lack of love which was at the root of their spiritual [ineffectiveness]. They were empowered with spiritual gifts, but they could not use them profitably because of the rivalry and jealousy [they had]. Someone else rightly notes that love should be “the very atmosphere in which the Christian lives and moves and has his or her very being” (Morris). Verse 20 commands the members to greet each other with a holy kiss. Since kissing as a greeting is not a part of our culture, maybe we can practice this command by giving each other a hearty handshake in the Lord. It may seem like such a small thing, but one of the customs in Italian churches that pays big dividends is every member must try very hard to greet every other member and visitor who attends! We'd come closer to obeying Paul's command if we did that as well. “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (1 Corinthians 12:24).
Finally, Paul closes by saying that we are to love Christ. Yet this command he gives in very unusual way. Look at verse 22: “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!” One commentator gives this insight: “[This] strong expression (immediately following Paul's taking up the pen himself, v. 21) shows the depth of the apostle's feelings on the importance of a right attitude toward the Lord. If anyone's heart is not aflame with love for the Lord, the root of the matter is not in Christ. [The cold-hearted member] is a traitor to the cause of right. Paul cannot contemplate such a person calmly” (Morris). Have you lost your love for Christ and would you be fearful is He were to return today?
“It is a delicate and difficult balance to maintain. Love the truth, but also love the brethren who are following it imperfectly! Love the struggling and weak child of God, but do not compromise the holy demands of truth and righteousness for the sake of corrupted sympathies! Paul did a [great] job of [maintaining such a balance], and His example is worth imitating. ... The Lord doesn't have any perfect churches. So don't be discouraged. Don't quit. Don't give up. Keep on caring, praying, and building! We are imperfect people in imperfect churches who serve a Perfect Savior. Our hope lies not with ourselves, but in [Christ]” (Shelly). Let Him wash, sanctify, and justify you today! Let Him bless you with God's grace and spiritual gifts! Let Him unite you in His global body! Don't allow yourself to fall under Paul's curse as one who does not love Jesus! “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15-16)! Let Him save or restore you!