We are going to begin a new study this week. We will be looking in some detail at the first (surviving) letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. As we do this, it will helpful to have a little cultural and historical background about the city of Corinth and the church there.
Corinth was situated on the narrow neck of land (isthmus) that joins the Peloponnese peninsula (say that five times fast!) to the rest of Greece. If you look at a map of Greece, the Peloponnese is the big mass that looks a bit like a four-fingered hand sticking south into the Mediterranean sea. One of the most famous cities on the Peloponnese is Sparta. From the ancient city of Corinth, at the narrowest isthmus of the peninsula, if you looked to the West and North you would see the gulf of Corinth; to the East and South is the Saronic gulf. The land between these two bodies of water is less than four miles wide at that point. The Romans tried to dig a canal there, but they found out it was solid rock. A canal was not successfully completed until 1893. Even so, in ancient times, ships would come in to both sides of the isthmus, and send their goods over the four miles of road to the opposite side, and thus save the time and risk of a much longer trip around the Peloponnese. The people at Corinth even developed a system for hauling smaller ships across the short stretch of land, completely loaded.
Because of the shipping advantages, and because anyone traveling to or from the Peloponnese had to pass through there, the city of Corinth became a major commercial center. It even has a modern day claim to fame in the realm of agriculture. A certain type of fruit flourished in the soil nearby, and even today we call it the “currant” a name which is derived from “Corinth.” Long before the time of Christ, Corinth was famous for its temple of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love. It is said that at one time more than 1,000 prostitutes worked for the temple. The Romans destroyed the city in 146 BC, and then re-built it about 100 years later. It quickly regained its status as a major trade center, and though the temple of Aphrodite did not return, Corinth was still a watchword for sexual immorality. In addition, the Corinthians hosted the Isthmian Games – much like the Olympic games, but held on different years. These games were immensely popular, and continued uninterrupted even after the Romans destroyed the city, and on after they rebuilt it.
Scholars estimate during the time of the New Testament the city of Corinth was home to about half a million people. So what Paul encountered in Corinth was this: a large city in which people of many different races and economic levels mixed; a place where you might make a fortune, or where you could find ways indulge your sensual desires; or where you might make a name for yourself as a famous athlete. It was a place to pursue your personal dreams and ambitions, and a culture in which pride was more evident than humility. It was not a place known for strong moral character. If I may be so bold, in some ways it was a little bit like America in the 21st century.
Paul arrived in Corinth a little the worse for wear. He’d been kicked out of three cities in a row (Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea). After that he’d been to Athens, where he wasn’t very successful at starting a church. Then he came to to Corinth. He met a Jewish couple – Priscilla and Aquila – who had been expelled from Rome along with most Jews there. They may have already been Christians – that part is not quite clear. Paul did his usual thing, preaching in the Jewish synagogue. As usual, a few Jews received the message, and then trouble started, and he began preaching to the Gentiles. But this time, Paul heard from the Lord in a dream. The Holy Spirit said to him:
Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.
So Paul ended up staying in Corinth peacefully for about eighteen months, and when he left, it was by his own choice, not because he was driven away. Priscilla and Aquila went with Paul when he left, and then they parted ways at Ephesus. The couple met another man of God, named Apollos. After giving Apollos some further instruction, they sent him to do more work with the church at Corinth.
At some point, Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians that was lost. Paul refers to this letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9. He apparently wrote another letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians, which was also lost (there are references to it in 2 Corinthians). So, out of four letters from Paul to Corinth, we have two. This is not any cause for theological concern. The Holy Spirit preserved for us the writing that he wanted preserved.
Sometime after his first, “lost” letter, the Corinthian Christians sent a letter of their own to Paul, with some questions about various matters. At roughly the same time, some people from Corinth visited Paul – they may in fact, have personally delivered the letter. From the letter, and from the visitors, Paul learned some things about the Corinthian church that disturbed him. In response, he sat down and wrote the letter which we call 1 Corinthians.
The first three verses of the letter are a fairly typical greeting: virtually all of the letters in the New Testament have greetings that are similar to this. However, there are slight differences in the opening of each letter, and the differences here, taken together with verses 4-9, seem to have a purpose.
The fact is, Paul is going to write some things in this letter that are not very complimentary to the Corinthian Christians. He has to take them task for causing unnecessary divisions; for sexual immorality; for devaluing the word of God through Paul’s own ministry; for suing each other; for abusing spiritual gifts; for abusing the Lord’s supper; and for disorderly worship. Sadly, the Corinthians Christians have begun to compromise with their culture and they’ve screwed some things up in a big way.
Paul knows all this, and has it mind as he begins writing. But he has something else in mind also. That other thing on his mind is the great grace and love and power that are in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the spiritual reality of the situation is not based upon the behavior of the Corinthians. It is based upon the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Paul uses the name “Christ Jesus” or some variant of it nine times in the first nine verses. He makes additional references to Jesus (as “he” or “him”) three more times in the same verses. He reminds the Corinthians that he himself is called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by God. He tells them that they have been made holy, and are called to remain holy, only in Christ Jesus. He reminds them several times that Jesus Christ is their Lord. Their grace, their knowledge, their spirituality are all given to them by and through faith in Jesus Christ. They have been enriched in every way in Jesus. They lack nothing – in, and because of, Jesus Christ.
One of my greatest struggles as a parent has been to effectively convey this dual message: I love you no matter what. Nothing you do or don’t do could make me love you any more. Nothing you do or don’t do, could make me love you any less. And, at the same time, I want you to change your behavior.
This is kind of what Paul wants to convey. The Corinthians need to change their behavior. They are living in ways that are destructive to themselves and to others. They are becoming ineffective as witnesses for Jesus.
And yet, Paul wants to make sure they know that in and through Jesus Christ, they lack nothing. In Christ Jesus, they are complete. It is not about their performance – it is about God’s grace, love and power, given through Jesus Christ and received through faith. Yes, they need to address some things about how they are living their lives in the world. But in the spiritual realm, where their spirits are alive and connected with God through faith in Jesus, they have already been made perfect and complete. The task is to bring that power to bear on the way they live their lives. Paul closes this opening section like this:
He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.