What do all soap operas have in common? Soaps have a never aging cast. They are predictable, yet still leave their audience surprised. They are scandalous, yet acceptable to the masses. Soaps live up to the name “daytime drama” filling plots with family messes, immorality, and power trips. After a quick reading of 1 Corinthians, you’d think it was a script for an episode of “Days of Our Lives” or “Guiding Light”. Corinth is a church wracked by division, money problems, and immorality. Certain church members are visiting prostitutes while others are promoting celibacy. One leader is having an affair with his step-mom and rather than dealing with it the church accepts it. Corinth is a mess.
Does this church sound like any you know? If we were honest, the first century church of Corinth resembles the church of our century. That’s why Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of the most relevant books in the Bible for the current church (and church goer). It is for people struggling to live together inside the church and live for Christ outside the church. It’s a letter for Corinth and a letter for you.
History of Corinth: To understand Corinth, you need to understand its history. The city itself dates back to the Peloponnesian War (431 BC). It became a Greek city-state and the seat of the Achaean League under Alexander the Great. Later, Corinth was destroyed by the Romans (146 BC), but 100 years later it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar (44 BC). So in Paul’s day, Corinth was newly rebuilt and revitalized.
Life in Corinth: Corinth (pop. 700k) was a happening city. First, it was the hub of trade between Rome and Asia and probably the wealthiest city in Greece. Its three harbors and overland route through its isthmus nicknamed it “the bridge of the sea” and made it the shortcut and emporium of half the world. Second, Corinth was multicultural and multi-religious. Romans, Greeks and Jews mingled together. The city’s the most popular god was Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She supported the economy with a thousand “Corinthian girls” or temple prostitutes. Corinth was coined as the Vanity Fair of the Roman empire; alike to London, Paris, New York or Las Vegas today. The label “To act like a Corinthian” carries the same weight as “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
It is easy to see how the church and Christians at Corinth would be influenced by its community. Corinth was a messy town with a messy church. Yet what town or church isn’t messy? Corinth could be any town or any church. It could be your town and your church.
1) When moving to a place like Corinth, be driven by a love for Jesus and His church (1:1-9)
Paul grew to love the Corinthians with Christ-like affection, though he never had to deal with any church so inflated, so immoral, so indifferent to his sufferings, or so cheeky towards his teaching. To understand Paul’s unconditional love for the church you need to travel back in time a few years to the beginnings of his relationship with the city.
Origin of the Gospel in Corinth: Paul was driven to Corinth (50-51AD) after a difficult time in Thessalonica and Athens (Acts 17:1-34). He didn’t go alone, but was assisted by Priscilla and Aquila, his tent-making buddy. Soon after arrival Paul preached the gospel (Acts 18:1–18) and opposition grew fierce. Discouraged, Jesus spoke to Paul in a vision assuring him that He had ‘many people’ in the city (Acts 18:10). With this encouragement, Paul stayed for 18-months, ‘teaching them the word of God’ (Acts 18:11) and a new church was born.
Origin of the First Letter: A few years later (54-55 AD), while in Ephesus (vs.16:8-9; Acts 20:31) ‘Paul the Apostle’ (v.1) penned this letter the “church of God, which is at Corinth,” (v.2a) likely, many small groups meeting in homes. To Paul, a letter was better than a phone call, but not as good as a visit.
It is obvious, Paul’s love for Jesus and the church are intertwined and dripping over every word. Proof of his love is seen in the sizable greetings and thanks portion of his letter (vs.2b-9). What Paul also reveals is the theology behind his love for the church and how we should think about the church. First, it belongs to God (v.2a). Second, its members are sanctified in Christ and becoming holy (v.2b). Third, it is made up of all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (v.2c). Fourth, God is faithful to it. These are universal truths about any church anywhere at anytime. What’s not to love about the church when you look at it through these eyes? What do you love about the church? How do you express thanks for it?
2) When ministering in a messy church, claim Jesus as the undisputed center (1:10-17)
Paul’s original mission to Corinth was successful. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, was baptized, with all his house. He started meeting in a room near the synagogue, which was made available by Titus Justus. It was there Paul preached for many months. What did he teach them? He taught them from the Law and the Prophets about Jesus. What do you think he had wished he had taught them? Probably nothing different, knowing Corinth. This is a great lesson for us to make Jesus the central topic of our discussions and teachings.
What happens when Jesus in not made center? Corinth becomes the case and point. Here begins one of three different segments of the letter to the Corinthians: divisions (v.10). Who is it that reports division to Paul? (v.11) Chloe’s house. What’s the reason for division? (v.12) Certain leaders had “groupies”. Christian celebrity worship is not just a 21st Century thing. The first century church had groupies too. At Corinth(ian Idol), the “groupies” rallied around either Paul (the founder), Apollos (the pastor), Cephas (the rock, Peter), or Jesus (the One and Only). It’s uncertain how the cliques formed, yet the text gives clues that is concerns the one who baptized them (v.13) or tickled their intellect (v.17). And what about the “Christ” groupies? Likely they were pious groupies. In either case, when Jesus is not the undisputed center of your life, ministry or church you flirt with idolatry.
How can we minimize groupie-ness? Notice how Paul does it (vs.13-16). He simply, yet emphatically points to Jesus. The thing for which to watch for is the way in which Paul consistently relates every subject and problem in Corinth to the centrality of the Person and work of Jesus Christ (v.17). Paul’s cure for division in the church is unifying around the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s has a “we’re not alone, we’re in this together” view of the church. To him, if the church would just acknowledge its ultimate allegiance—Jesus—then the church would have a much better probability of getting along. Later, Paul uses a beautiful image to describe the church as “one body, many parts.” (12:20) and Jesus as the “Head of the Body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). Regardless of our differences, indifferences, and messes, the church is still Jesus’ beautiful Bride (Ephesians 5:23). It’s a beautiful mess because Jesus is its center.
3) When making much of Christ, be prepare for the world to think it is feeble and foolish (1:18-31)
If Jesus is your undisputed center, people will think you are foolish (vs.18-21). Paul echoes this by saying there are two types of people in this world: 1) people think the cross is the idea of fools or 2) people who think it’s the wisdom of God. There isn’t much room in between. The gospel message doesn’t rest well with the populace. It’s just not cool to be Christian. Never was and never will be. Remember, before Paul came to Corinth he reasoned with the intellectuals and philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens? They thought he was a fool—a babbler—and mocked him. Paul could wax profundity with the best of them, but on his way to Corinth, he determined to shelve all “human” wisdom and eloquence, instead he preached the gospel in its uttermost and humblest simplicity (v.23; cf. 1:17; 2:1–5).
How is preaching of the gospel opposite of what the Jews and Greeks desire, yet exactly what they need? Concerning God’s redemptive plan the Jews think the cross is feeble and the Greeks think the cross is foolish (vs.22-23). The wise and strong of this world reject the cross, but it is the only means by which God will accept them. The plan of the cross for your neighbor is feeble and foolish. However, for those called by God, the cross is the greatest display power and wisdom of God’s (v.24). We must acknowledge the divide, but continue to bridge it with the simple, powerful, and truthful message of the cross of Jesus Christ. As John Stott said, “The gospel of the cross will never be a popular message because it humbles the pride of our intellect and character. Yet Christ crucified is both God’s wisdom and ours. It therefore manifests His power too, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)”
How do we begin to compare the power and wisdom of God to man? There is no comparison. “The foolishness of God is still far wiser than man’s most wisest thought and the weakness of God is still far more powerful than man’s most strongest feat” (v.25, my paraphrase). Is God “foolish” or “weak”? No. So why does Paul use the words “foolish” and “weak” to compare God and man? He is showing how polar opposite the power and wisdom of God and man really are. Comparing God to man is like comparing the power of gravity with a refrigerator magnet.
I felt like a fool this week. While walking through my neighborhood I saw a group of guys I’ve visited before sitting outside their gate. They greeted me from a distance and welcomed me over to them. There was a new man in the mix, a well-dressed older man with a whitening beard. He immediately asked me if I was Muslim, which is a common question since I speak a little Arabic and sport a beard too. I said, “No, I go the way of Jesus the Messiah.” He quickly responded, “So do I. I go the way of all the prophets. Do you go the way of the prophet Mohammad?” I said, “No, only the way of Jesus.” He then opened the gauntlet, “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe in three gods? Can God be a baby? Can God die?” I was being shredded, gut-checked, and mocked. I felt so unloved, yet so calm. My only response was, “Can God can do the miraculous? (i.e. Create something from nothing, cause the sun to stand still, part the Red Sea, raise the dead, heal the sick) Have you read Jesus’ words in the Injil?” My questions and invitation seemed to rest on deaf ears. I said my goodbyes and left feeling like a fool, moreover, I was filled with sorrow for their souls.
The Corinthians forgot something important, which we often forget too. They thought they were somebodies, but forgot they were nobodies. They were proud and thought they arrived. They forgot they were weak, lowly, and despised (vs.26-29). The words “low” or “despised” are often used of slaves. Interestingly it is estimated that 400,000 of the 700,000 residents of Corinth were slaves. Not everyone in Corinth was the “cream of the crop.” Do not forget who you were before Christ. How do the words “low” and despised” remind you of Jesus’ own entrance into this world? Jesus was born in a manger, He worked as a carpenter, He hung out with sinners, He did not claim to be the returned King yet, and He suffered a criminals death rejected and despised. Jesus was the humblest, strongest and wisest man to ever live.
I’ve got nothing. When I stand before God at the end of my life, my brawn and brains will not be enough, my dollars and donations won’t amount to much, my good works or merciful acts won’t stack up. To boast in my little stack of stuff is silly. Nothing I boast in tops out Jesus Christ. He gives me serious grounds for boasting (vs.30-31). When I boast in Jesus, I boast in something God the Father and God the Spirit also boast in too. I want to make much of Jesus Christ.
No matter where you are or live the church is messy (like a soap opera), however, Jesus is still the founder and sustainer of it. It is His, He bought it with His blood, and it’s His living organism in the world today bringing people to Himself. May you serve the church of Jesus joyfully, especially, as you go to hard to reach places with hard to reach people who think your message is foolish and feeble, or disciple messy believers. Like Paul, you are in good company. Make much of Christ.