I guess most people would say that we’ve come a long way in the past 2000 years. We’re far better educated. We’re much more sophisticated. We know a whole lot more about the world we live in, the universe around us, the microscopic world within. We have the benefit of 2000 years of thinking, of philosophy, of scientific investigation and exploration. Our ability to access information is almost beyond belief. Yet in many ways we’re actually no better off now than the people who lived in the first century. We still have the same sorts of social issues. We still fight the same temptations. Our human nature is really no different now to how it was back then.
So today, as we begin a new series of sermons on the first letter to the Corinthians, I have to say that the issues that it raises are issues that I think we’ll find are as relevant now as they were when this letter was first penned.
Let me tell you a bit about the Corinthians.
First, they were well taught & quite gifted. Corinth was on a narrow isthmus joining southern Greece with the rest of the country. There were 2 major seaports both of which fed into Corinth, so that anything that passed through the area, whether it came by land or sea, passed through Corinth. So it was at the centre of the major trade route for the south of Greece. As a result it was a prosperous city and a sophisticated city. Everything went through Corinth, both trade goods and ideas. And being a large commercial centre close to 2 seaports it was also a centre of moral corruption. The Greeks actually had a word for leading a life of debauchery; it was "Korinthiazein", i.e. To live like a Corinthian.
But of course being a Greek city the people also prided themselves in their education and their grasp of philosophy. They were exposed to all the latest ideas and no doubt took great pleasure in debating and discussing these ideas just as the Athenians who met on the Areopagus did.
Now I hope you’re beginning to see how similar they were to people of our day. They may not have had the instant communications that we have, but they were just as proud of their level of knowledge and education as many are today. They were just as interested in the latest theories of spirituality or philosophy as we are.
The other thing that we need to understand about Corinth though, was that the religious context of the city was thoroughly pagan. Dominating the city was a 500 metre hill called the "Acrocorinth" on which stood a large temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It had 1000 priestesses who were sacred prostitutes, who at the end of the day would come down from the temple to ply their trade in the streets. Similarly there was the temple of Apollo, who represented the ideal of male beauty and virility and again his worship was linked with homosexual prostitution.
So here was a city that was large, sophisticated, generally well educated and thoroughly pagan. So you can understand what Paul means when he talks about coming to them with fear and trembling in 2:3. This was no backwater of the Roman Empire. This was a large metropolis populated by people who had seen it all and who were used to hearing the best of the Greek philosophers sharing their wisdom with any who would listen.
Yet when Paul came to Corinth he found a ready audience among the Greek residents. And he found that God was with him, keeping him safe. As a result he stayed there some 18 months, the longest he stayed anywhere in his missionary journeys and the church grew and became strong.
Mind you, its strength didn’t mean that it was without problems. In fact it may be that the strength of their faith was the source of their major problems. What we find as we read through this letter is not that there was any great theological heresy being preached, but rather their major problem was a problem of pride. They were so proud of their new found Christian knowledge that they had somehow missed the point of the gospel. They appeared to be wise but in fact they were immature, needing to be fed milk not solid food.
And so Paul writes to them to remind them of the central issue of the gospel, as well as to answer some of the questions that have arisen from their internal disagreements.
But first. Let’s look at how he begins his letter. It’s always instructive I think to look at the way Paul begins his letters to the Churches he writes to.
As he does in most of the letters he writes, he begins by reminding his readers that he’s writing not just as a friend and a past leader of their church, but as an apostle commissioned by Christ Jesus. The things that he’s writing come with an authority beyond that of a human leader. He writes as Christ’s apostle so the things he says need to be taken very seriously.
And look at the way he describes them: they’re sanctified in Christ Jesus. That is, they’re set apart, reserved for Jesus Christ. They’re called to be saints, to be holy for God. Just as Paul was called to be an apostle, so they’ve been called to be set apart, along with everyone else who calls on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ into a fellowship based on the grace and peace of God.
Look how he continues: He thanks God for the grace that’s been given to them. That grace is the source of all the things of which they’re proud: the wealth of learning and knowledge, their well instructed speech, their ability to testify to the work of Jesus Christ among them, their exercise of every kind of spiritual gift. Notice that these are all things that he’ll bring up later as he addresses the flaws in their life together. But here they’re acknowledged to be strengths not weaknesses.
That’s often the way isn’t it? Our strengths are often also our weaknesses. And so it is here, as we’ll see in a moment.
But Paul’s aim isn’t to run them down, it’s to build them up and encourage them. As much as he realises that they have a few problems, he knows too that it isn’t easy to maintain their faith in an environment like Corinth.
In fact this is one of those things that make this book still relevant to us living in the 21st century. We too find it hard to maintain our faith, our Christian stance in a culture that’s just as opposed to Christ, just as pagan probably, as that of Paul’s day. So look at how God encourages us by this letter. Look at v8: "[Christ] will ... strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Life may be difficult for the Christian, but Christ will strengthen us so we can persevere and in the end appear before God blameless because of what Christ has done for us.
Now I want you to notice how, as the letter begins, Christ is central. This is no accident. There’s nothing random about that. Paul wants to emphasise that Christ is everything as far as the Christian faith is concerned. And we’ll see why as we move on to the next section because now he moves from encouragement to addressing the issues that face them if they’re going to remain faithful to Christ.
He says, "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." Here is a strong and relatively mature Church but it has a problem. It’s wracked by divisions. The members of the Church are fighting with each other. Now some of you may have read v11 and thought "What’s new? Isn’t that what most churches are like?" Quarrels and infighting are not uncommon in the Church are they? People who avoid others because they don’t like what they think they might say; people who backbite or back stab those who don’t agree with their point of view; people who whinge and complain because things aren’t exactly how they’d like them to be. But as much as that might be a common experience in many churches, it isn’t how it should be. It’s actually a sign of immaturity among the members of the church.
What was happening in Corinth was that they’d become party animals. Not the sort you hear of these days. Rather they were aligned to certain gurus: Paul or Peter or Apollos. They each thought their group had something the others were missing out on. For some it might have been Paul’s clarity in expounding the gospel, for some it was Peter’s first hand reports of his life with Jesus and perhaps the Jewish flavour to Peter’s presentation of the gospel, for others it was the eloquence of Apollos, a preacher who had been trained in the best Greek schools of rhetoric.
"How foolish! How short-sighted can you be!" he says. As if there’s only one way to preach the gospel! As if the messenger is what matters! Have you forgotten what the gospel is all about? Who was it who was crucified for you? Was it Paul or Apollos? No! It was Christ. He’s the one who matters. He’s the one you should be giving your allegiance to.
As for those who want to emphasise the eloquence of Apollos, don’t they realise what a futile exercise that is? How can you be concentrating on the wisdom and eloquence of a preacher when the basic message of that preacher is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews.
In fact, he points out, the whole notion of the wisdom of this age is counteracted by this message of the gospel, by the true wisdom of God.
What does the wisdom of this age say? Well, it says that those who are the best educated or the most articulate are the most important. It says that what the majority think must be right. At the same time it says that we all have the right to decide what to believe.
But perhaps most importantly in this context it says we can find our own way to God. Certainly the Greeks thought that if they thought about it and talked about it long enough, if they applied their reason to what they saw in the world, they’d discover enough about God to say they knew what he was like. Well I think you’d have to say that we haven’t changed that much in 2000 years wouldn’t you?
And what was it that the Greeks had worked out about God from their long discussions? Well, one of the things they’d decided was that if God was to be God, then he had to be unable to suffer. A God who suffers was a contradiction in terms. So the idea that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself was utter stupidity, utterly incomprehensible. How could God suffer and die on a cross?
Similarly, for the Jew the thought that the Messiah, God’s anointed one, could die on a cross, the sign of God’s curse, was a contradiction in terms.
But God had shown both forms of wisdom to be flawed. He’d bypassed such human wisdom by revealing himself to us in the form of his son, Jesus Christ. He’d shown how, not only could he suffer and still be God, but it was only through such suffering that his power could be released in our lives. Only through Christ’s death and resurrection could we receive the power to be changed into his likeness, to be made acceptable to God.
And that’s why these divisions are so stupid. These divisions are based on differences in human thinking or aesthetics or understanding. But God has overthrown all such thinking.
There will always be differences in the way people see the world, in what we see as important, in where we place our emphasis. But in the end what matters is how we respond to Jesus Christ and to the message of salvation through his death and resurrection. Now that doesn’t mean that we won’t have to worry about issues of lifestyle, of morality, of integrity, of mutual love and care. Of course all those things are important. But there’s only one thing that should define our allegiance, only one person who deserves our loyalty and that’s Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.
We should give thanks that we have a certain level of diversity in our congregation here. It could be greater, but it’s there in the range of backgrounds, interests, education, cultures that are represented here. But the test of the gospel is whether that diversity is incorporated into a unity in Christ Jesus. Christ’s death and resurrection are the means by which people of great diversity can be brought together as one under Christ’s headship. If he’s Lord, then other allegiances are irrelevant.
What we’ll find as we go through this letter is that this issue arises again and again as Paul seeks to address the questions that have arisen in the Church at Corinth over differences of opinion on how to live out their faith in Christ. Always he comes back to the centrality of Christ as Lord and of the saving power of the gospel; to the need to look to Christ rather than to human wisdom to determine how to live out our faith.
Let me encourage you to begin to read through the letter as we go through it in our sermon series. As you’re reading, think about the way our world would have us think and whether such thinking is at odds with the way that God thinks. And remember that one of our aims as we go through this letter is to see how the preaching of the cross leads us to a greater unity even within our diversity.
For more sermons from this source go to www.sttheos.org.au