Summary: In a Church where diversity is the norm, our unity is of vital importance. Let’s remember to emphasise the centrality of Christ as Lord and of the saving power of the gospel; and the need to look to Christ rather than to human wisdom to determine how to l
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.