September 3, 2022 - 1st Corinthians Chapters 1-4

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Today we begin a 4-part series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The ruins of ancient Corinth lie on a rocky hillside covered with pine trees 50 miles west of Athens on a narrow neck of land 4 miles wide separating the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. Not only was Corinth the headquarters for Roman government for the southern half of Greece, NT Corinth was also a booming economic center. Because it was sandwiched between 2 seaports, Corinth controlled the shortcut for commercial traffic between Rome and the eastern half of the empire. Cargo and even entire boats were dragged over a short road connecting the 2 ports. Recently rebuilt by Julius Caesar after 100 years in ruins, Corinth instantly became a city of opportunity. Money attracted people to Corinth like meat attracts flies.

NT Corinth was notorious for its sexual sin of all kinds. Corinth makes today’s Las Vegas and San Francisco look righteous by comparison. Corinth was famous for its temple of Aphrodite on a mountain overlooking the city, where we are told that 1000 prostitutes served. People back then used to joke, “Not every man can afford a journey to Corinth.”

Life in the Corinthian fast lane was intoxicating. It was only natural for believers at Corinth to get swept away by all that was going on in the culture that surrounded them. It was easy for them to get carried away by the latest wisdom or personality cult. Likewise today, in our world that is so much like ancient Corinth, it’s easy for God’s people to jump on the latest bandwagon, to chase the latest fad, or seek out the latest guru, heartthrob, or hero we can idolize.

But when Paul writes his first letter to his new friends at Corinth, Paul urges them not to fall into the trap of hero worship. Paul urges the Corinthians not to place their faith in human wisdom or methods, but in the power of God. According to chapter 16, Paul writes this letter to Corinth from Ephesus, sometime in the spring, probably in the year 55 AD (he writes, “I will stay at Ephesus until Pentecost”). Life was not easy at Ephesus; in chapter 15, Paul says he had to fight with figurative wild beasts there. But Paul has heard about problems back in his former church at Corinth, problems that prompt Paul to write to them, with the help of a secretary named Sosthenes.

The brand-new church at Corinth was already plagued by personality cults. Right at the beginning of his letter, Paul says he hears they’ve been quarreling over who’s their favorite Bible teacher. Some at Corinth claim to follow Paul. Some follow Apollos (the guy after Paul). Some follow Cephas, meaning Peter. And some claim to follow no one but Christ.

Paul thinks it’s crazy. His flabbergasted questions here all begin with a word we could translate “Surely not!” “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul wants no part of being the star of anyone’s personality cult. Here Paul surprises us by telling us that he baptized no one except Crispus (the former synagogue leader), Gaius (the guy who owned the house where the church meets), and the family of Stephanas. Other than them, Paul says “I know not” whether he had baptized anyone else at Corinth. Therefore, no one in this dispute can claim they were baptized in Paul’s name.

But then in 1:17 Paul throws us a shocker by declaring that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.” What? If baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, how can Paul say that? Didn’t Christ command baptism in the same breath with making disciples of all nations? Paul pays far less attention to baptism than we would have thought. Paul argues that his job is to spread the Good News, not to build a following for himself.

God does not want us to put our faith in personalities. We must never fall into the trap of following human leaders instead of Christ. We humans love stars and celebrities. But God is not impressed with names or titles or status. God takes no interest in our popularity contests. God doesn’t need celebrity endorsements. God never wants us so focused on human vessels of clay that we miss the treasure inside: Christ himself.

God is also not impressed with human wisdom or methods. That’s why Paul says he does not use words of wisdom in his message, lest the cross of Christ be emptied (of its power). “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul asks. “Where is the wise person? Where is the scholar? Where is the debate expert?” Today we would ask, “Where is the spin doctor? Where is the media consultant? Where is the public relations expert of this age?”

God’s wisdom, says Paul, is not what the Greeks were looking for. They were looking for the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the opinions of the Stoics and Epicureans. The intellectuals of Paul’s day sought to discover truth through reason alone. But God throws a wrench into that approach. God decides to save people, not through earthly wisdom, but through a message that sounded too comical to be true to the Greek mind.

God refuses to give the world what they expect God to give them. As Paul observes, Jews demand signs from God to prove our message (but the only sign God gives them is Jesus’ resurrection), while Greeks want wisdom that makes sense to their human minds. But Paul gives them neither. What does Paul give them? The answer is: “A crucified Messiah.”

A crucified Messiah?? To the Jews, the thought of a crucified Messiah was not merely revolting, it was a logical contradiction. The rabbis taught, “No one is to be hanged but the blasphemer and the idol worshipper.” It was unthinkable that the Messiah should die such a shameful, accursed death. To the Jews, the cross was proof that Jesus was not from God.

The cross was not only a stumbling block to Jews, it was also foolishness to Greeks and Romans. They thought: How silly to worship a crucified Jew, a guy who probably deserved his punishment! How can a dead Jew on a Roman cross bring salvation to the world? To them, the Christian message was the ultimate in foolishness. We need to appreciate how utterly stupid our treasured message of the cross must have sounded to Paul’s world. Certainly the Corinthians could have cooked up a more popular message than the message God gave them.

But God doesn’t play by our rules. No, it’s this message of the cross that God uses to outsmart the wisdom of the world. To those who are blinded by the evil one, the cross may sound like foolishness, but to those for whom God has opened their eyes, that same message makes all the sense in the world. “For the (supposed) foolishness of God is wiser than humans, and the weakness of God is stronger than humans.”

Think about how you got here! Paul asks his friends. How many of you were celebrities? How many of you were big shots? How many of you were wise or powerful? How many of you were of noble birth? The answer is: not that many. They did have a few: Crispus the former leader of the Jewish synagogue, Erastus the city treasurer, and Gaius, the guy who had a house big enough for the entire church. But the church at Corinth also had plenty of slaves like Tertius and Quartus, former boozers and swinging singles, and men who had left the gay lifestyle. Paul says in chapter 6, “Such were some of you.” A few big shots, a lot of nobodies. But Paul says that God uses the weak (like them) to shame the strong.

Back when I was young, I used to wonder: Why doesn’t God save some big star like Elton John or one of the Beatles? The answer is, sometimes God does. In 1979, God got ahold of Bob Dylan. God has saved a long list of other celebrities, from Kerry Livgren of Kansas (who wrote “Dust in the Wind”), to Charles Schulz (the creator of Peanuts), to Kurt Warner and Albert Pujols and Jackie Joyner-Kersey, to Sam and Helen Walton of Wal-Mart, to J.C. Penney, just to list a very few. There are so many more I could name; it depends partly on whom you include.

Some of the greatest names in history have been committed Christians: Bach, Rembrandt, Isaac Newton, Pascal (an intellectual giant), James Madison (chief author of our Constitution), Noah Webster (author of our dictionary). If we look hard enough, we’ll find true Christians who are wise, powerful, or famous sprinkled all over society and throughout history. But Paul’s words are still true: “not many.” And God wanted it that way, so that we will take pride not in who’s who among us, but in the Good News of what Christ has done for all of us.

Paul reminds the Corinthians in chapter 2 that when he came to Corinth, he decided not to use high-powered wisdom, persuasive speech, or slick sales techniques: “I came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.” Paul had already tried eloquent wisdom in Acts 17 in his speech to the philosophers at Athens. He did a good job, with mixed results. When he comes to Corinth, Paul tries a different approach: “I was determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul sticks to the simple message that Christ died for our sins.

Paul also reminds them that he came to them “in weakness and in fear, and with much trembling” – no charisma, no charm, no slick presentation. “My speech and my preaching were not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” If we could think our way to Christ, the smartest people would always be Christians. But because our minds are twisted by sin, the smartest people often think up the smartest arguments against God. C. S. Lewis says education has only made the human a more clever devil.

Paul explains as he continues in chapter 2 how God’s Spirit is the source of real wisdom. How does anyone know what is in someone, except the spirit that dwells within them? Likewise, God’s Spirit alone has access to the heart of God. “The Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” Who has known the mind of the Lord? Paul asks. “We have the mind of Christ,” Paul says, whereas in verse 14 Paul says the natural human has no such knowledge.

Paul goes on in chapter 3 to talk about immaturity. Immaturity is both a personal issue and a spiritual issue. In chapter 3, Paul complains that there were some believers at Corinth he could not speak to as Spirit-controlled mature Christians who knew how to behave. Paul had to speak to them as persons who were still controlled by their old human nature (“the flesh”). Paul says he had to treat them as babes in Christ, spiritual infants, believers who had not grown in their faith enough to act like adults.

The Corinthians had placed their faith in Christ, but their feet had not yet caught up to their faith. Their faith had not yet produced a fundamental change in the way they lived. The Corinthians were still full of prideful bickering over who was the greatest and who was in charge. In chapter 6, we see they’re even dragging each other into court before pagan judges. What an embarrassing place for the church to be airing its dirty laundry: in the public square!

Paul asks, “When there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not still carnal? (Are you not still controlled by your old human nature, “the flesh”?) Look at you, arguing about “I am for Paul” and “I am for Apollos!” It’s been 4 years since you guys came to believe! You guys should be eating solid food by now. Why do I have to feed you milk from a bottle? It’s not whether you’ve been a Christian for 50 years, but have you done 50 years of growing?

Love, unity, and humility are signs of spiritual maturity. Strife, jealousy, and pride come from the old human nature. Pastor Rick Warren says, “It is impossible to have spiritual maturity and pride at the same time.” 300 years ago, the Puritan Richard Baxter once wrote, “Where there is pride, all want to lead, and none want to follow or agree.”

One measure of maturity is how much sin we are decisively rooting out of our life, how many weaknesses we are overcoming. Another measure of maturity is teachability, how open to correction we are. Still another measure of maturity is how much of a servant we are. Likewise, can we step down from a position of service, or do we cling to it because it meets our personal needs? Another measure of maturity is accountability: do we have the courage to have our lives examined by others who can keep us from falling? Each of us needs to be willing to answer, not only to God, but to the watchful eye of a fellow struggler in the faith.

Paul goes on: Let’s put your personality dispute about us into perspective. Who are we? We’re both just servants of the same God. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” God gets all the credit; we’re all the same team. You are God’s field, or God’s building. I laid the foundation; another man has been building on it. Be careful what you use to build on what you have been given. There’s no other foundation we can build on but Christ. What we build on that foundation is up to us. If we build with precious stone or metal, our work will survive the fire of judgment, and we will receive a reward. But if we build with wood, hay, or stubble, God will burn up what we built. Verse 15: “If anyone’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet thus as through fire.” Here is the only place in God’s word where I find what we have done for Christ being judged and rewarded. If what we build is all about us, it’s likely to be burned up. All we can take with us as a reward from this life is what we have done for Christ rather than for our own glory or credit or enjoyment.

Paul then asks in verse 16, “Don’t you know that ye are the temple of God, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” Later on, Paul will teach the Corinthians that their bodies are temples of God, and that they must not abuse those temples through illicit sex. Here, Paul is teaching that the church is God’s temple. So whoever destroys God’s church becomes a target to be destroyed by God. So quit arguing about who you claim to follow: Paul, Apollos, or whoever. All of us belong to God.

In chapter 4, Paul goes on and tells his audience: Look at us as managers of the mysteries of God. Management is all about faithfulness. Who decides who’s faithful? The boss does, and nobody else. None of you ultimately decides; I can’t even decide that myself. I know nothing against me, but that doesn’t prove me faultless. So Paul says, “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who’ll both bring to light what’s hidden in darkness, and make manifest the motives of the heart. Then (literally) praise will happen to each person from God.”

Paul asks in 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (A good question for all of us!) Paul complains, We apostles get stuck at the end of the line! “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, we are despised. We constantly get the short end of the stick in what we have to endure for Christ, while you live like kings! We have become the scum of this world, the offscouring of all things.”

In verse 15, Paul reminds his audience that even if they have 10,000 teachers, they have only one spiritual father: “For in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel.” Here we see the word “begotten” used in a non-literal sense. (I doubt that Paul physically begot the entire Corinthian church!) So when the Bible teaches that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, we’re not talking about an exalted male human having physical relations with Mary.

Paul’s detractors at Corinth are so cocky and puffed up that they are sure Paul will never come to Corinth to deal with trouble there. Paul says he’ll be coming shortly, and then he’ll see whether these big talkers will put action where their mouth is. As Paul says in verse 20, “The kingdom of God is not in (or about) talk but in (or about) power.” Paul concludes this chapter by asking, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with a spirit of gentleness?”

As we turn to chapter 5 next time, Paul addresses an awkward disciplinary situation at Corinth. All the way across the Aegean, Paul’s heard about some shocking behavior going on at Corinth that was unheard of even among pagans. Paul then goes on to speak to issues such as lawsuits in the church, the Bible’s central teaching on sexual behavior, the value of contented singlehood, and whether it’s OK to eat meat that has been offered in an idol’s temple. We’ve got a lot to talk about! Join us as we continue our series on Paul’s first letter to Corinth next time on Biblical Words and World!