For as long as I have been a follower of Jesus, I have heard about how irrelevant the Bible is for modern-day people. They say, “It was written so long ago by people who knew absolutely nothing about what life would be like living in the 21st Century. The Bible is out-dated, antiquated, and out-of-step with life as we know it living in a modern world.” That’s what I’ve heard again and again from many of those who aren’t followers of Jesus.
There’s another line of thinking that I’ve heard over and over again throughout the years from those who are followers of Jesus and have become disillusioned with the modern-day church. It goes like this: “We need to get back to doing things like the early church, get back to our roots. What we know as “church” today is nothing like the early church!” Jeanne Hinton writes,
In every age there have been Christians who have wanted to return to their roots: to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, to the original Christian community, to the church as it was in the New Testament. Radical movements of this kind have often been attracted to the early Christian community and, in an attempt to recapture it, have formed their own communities. (Jeanne Hinton, Radical communities: The modern community movement. Christianity Today.)
I have to confess that I’ve found myself in this camp at times in the past, but after studying Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth for the past several weeks…I’ll never make that mistake again.
This morning I want to introduce you to the people who called the city of Corinth their home. I also want to introduce you to the church that was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey. I think you will see that there are so many similarities between the city and church of Paul’s day and the major metropolitan cities and churches of our own day. Let me show you around the city.
The ancient city of Corinth had a long history before it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. over a political dispute. It remained in ruins until Julius Caesar rebuilt Corinth 100 years later, in 44 B.C. Many Roman former slaves, former soldiers, and their families migrated to Corinth in hopes of starting over and capitalizing on the many opportunities Corinth presented. Soon afterwards business people and tradesmen from all over the Roman Empire made their way to Corinth to take advantage of the opportunities. What were those opportunities? Because of Corinth’s location the world passed through her harbors and streets. Corinth became like a boomtown. Alan Johnson writes,
Of great importance to our study of 1 Corinthians is the commercial culture that was prominent in Paul’s Corinth. In the first century the city was a bustling commercial crossroads for Europe and Asia. Ships from the west traveling from Italy through the Corinthian Gulf would head for the port of Lechaeum, Corinth’s eastern harbor. Those from the east could harbor at Cenchreae, which faced eastward toward the Saronic Gulf, which eventually led to the Aegean Sea and Asia. (Johnson, Alan. 1 Corinthians. pg. 15)
Corinth is situated on a narrow neck of land in Greece with a harbor on each side of the isthmus. Corinth sat at the crossroads between north and south and east and west for business and trade. Rather than sail down around Cape Malea where the winds and tides were often dangerous, the light cargo ships would be moved on rollers across the four miles of paved road called the “diolkos.” If the ship was too large, the cargo would be unloaded and transported to the other side where another ship would deliver it to its destination. Either way, the toll fees and carrying charges made Corinth very wealthy.
“Business” wasn’t the only game in town in Corinth. Corinth was the first Greek city to have Roman gladiator contests. Bigger by far were the Isthmian Games held every two years in Corinth. They were much like the Olympic Games and competitors traveled long distances for the opportunity to compete not only in chariot races and athletic contests for men and women, but there were competitions in trumpet, flute, lyre, poetry readings, and other events. Anthony Thiselton writes,
In addition to competitors and spectators, businesspeople, traders, and especially individuals with entrepreneurial skills or hopes visited what constituted a hub of opportunity for new commercial contacts and ventures, new possibilities of employment, quick person-to-person agreements or transactions, and a large cosmopolitan pool of potential customers. (Thiselton, Anthony. 1 Corinthians. pg. 5)
The people of Corinth were passionate about business and sports, but these weren’t the only things they were passionate about. The people of Corinth were people of faith and they were very devoted. In Corinth you could find the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece and their involvement in everyday life in Corinth was far reaching. There was the temple to Poseidon, ruler of the sea, and so important for Corinth’s commercial life. There were temples to Apollo, Artemis, Helius, Hermes, Zeus, Venus, Isis, and Asklepios, the god of healing, and his daughter Hygieia. Archaeologists have found hundreds of terra-cotta body parts which were offered to Asklepios at the temple. The body parts were the offerings of those who were afflicted and wanted healing. They were hung around the temple by worshippers.
The most well known of all of the temples was the temple of Aphrodite, which was built on the acropolis just outside of the city. The acropolis was a table top mesa that rose 2,000 feet above sea level. On top of the acropolis was the temple of Aphrodite. John MacArthur writes,
The most prominent edifice of the acropolis was a temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Some 1,000 prostitutes, who were ‘religious’ prostitutes, lived and worked there and came down into the city in the evening to offer their services to male citizens and foreign visitors. (The MacArthur Study Bible, From the “Introduction to 1 Corinthians”.)
Many Bible commentators say the temple of Aphrodite was past its prime by Paul’s day, but there is no doubt that Corinth was a city that catered to sailors and traveling salesmen and had a reputation for sexual immorality and drunkenness. William Barclay says, “Corinth became not only a synonym for wealth and luxury, drunkenness and debauchery, but also for filth.” There is an interesting sentence in Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth that shines a light on what Barclay is saying. Evidently, Paul had written another letter to the church in Corinth before he wrote 1 Corinthians. What they thought Paul was saying was not what he meant so Paul addressed it in his second letter. Look at 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 with me.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NIV)
The folks in Corinth were confused. “Is Paul telling us we can’t associate with anyone who is sexually immoral? The whole city is filled with sexual immorality!” Paul clarified things. “I’m not saying sexually immoral non-believers. If that were the case you would have to leave the world! I’m talking about those who say they are believers, brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Let’s review just for a minute. So the city of Corinth was filled with booming businesses, people jockeying for a competitive edge in the marketplace. The people of Corinth were sports crazed fans who wore the jerseys of their favorite gladiators and were willing to fork over big bucks for a prime suite at the Isthmian Games. They were passionately devoted to their gods and frequented the temples to make their offerings and plead for the blessings of Zeus, Hermes, the healing of Asklepios, or the company of Aphrodite’s sacred prostitutes. Business. Sports. Religion. Sex. Sound familiar? Sounds like Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth could have been addressed to the church in America.
You may not have known much about Corinth in the first century before we began our study this morning, but you do know about Oklahoma City and our own fixation on business, making money, sports, and religion. Something that is found in all of these is competition. We use phrases like, “It’s a dog eat dog world. You’ve got to get it while you can. Never let them see you sweat. This is a cut throat business. You’ve got to get ahead of the competition.” The people of Corinth were no different. Anthony Thiselton writes,
The people of Corinth were in general terms a thrusting, ambitious, and competitive people. The competition for success was everywhere apparent: in the Isthmian Games, in business and trade, in social status, and in economic power. ‘Getting ahead’ was the order of the day…The culture of Corinth, and certainly of its aspiring ‘climbers,’ was one of self-promotion. (Thiselton, Anthony. 1 Corinthians. pg. 9-10)
That’s the marketplace. That’s what it takes to succeed on the field of competition. You must win at all costs…or so they say. Jesus said that He was sending His people out into the world to be salt and light, but the sad reality in Corinth, and the sad reality of our own day is that those who are called to be salt and light are bringing the ways of the world into the church.
Instead of self-promotion and gaining a competitive edge on others, throughout Paul’s letter we find a consistent theme of looking out for the other, of serving others, and over all of these is the banner of love. In the most well known chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes,
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV)
Love. Not “love” as we define love or “love” as the world defines love, but “love” as modeled by Jesus as He came to serve and even give His life as a ransom for those who were estranged, separated from God, because of their own sin. This love was greatly needed in the church at Corinth and we’ll learn about the ways Paul applied the lessons of love in so many different scenarios during our study.
You may be wondering, “How did a Jew from Tarsus, who became a follower of Jesus, ever get from Jerusalem all the way to Corinth anyway?” That’s a great question! To begin with, Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch when they decided to go back and visit some of the churches they had established on their first missionary journey. They had a disagreement about Mark so Paul took Silas and went his way while Barnabas took Mark and went another way. Paul and Silas left Antioch in about 50 A.D. While Paul was traveling down to Troas, he and his companions stopped for the night. Take a look at Acts 16:8-9 with me.
8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:8-9 NIV)
The next day they set sail for Samothrace, they went to Neapolis, and on to Philippi. Paul ran into trouble everywhere he went. They traveled down to Thessalonica and ran into more trouble. In Berea, more trouble. Eventually Paul made his way to Athens. Acts 17 will tell you about Paul’s time in Athens where he shared the Good News about Jesus to the academic types who gathered at the Areopagus and some even became followers of Jesus. Paul left Athens and made his way across the narrow neck of land over into Corinth. In Acts 18, Luke tells us,
1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 18:1-5 NIV)
When he arrived in Corinth, Paul met the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, who were driven out of Rome along with other followers of Jesus by Emperor Claudius. They were tentmakers like Paul so they began to work and minister together.
In verse 5, Luke tells us that when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, “Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.” That phrase really jumped out at me this week. We’ll come back to it in just a minute, but first I want us to recognize that Paul was going to the synagogue every Sabbath and was sharing Jesus with Jews and Gentiles alike. It didn’t take long for Paul’s preaching ministry to go south. The Jews became upset. They didn’t like his message and began to oppose him, they even became abusive. We can read about it in Acts 18:6-7.
6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. (Acts 18:6-7 NIV)
There’s a great lesson here for you and me. We are all called to share the Good News of Jesus with others. Study after study shows that most followers of Jesus are not sharing Jesus with others. Why? They are afraid they won’t know what to say. They are afraid of being rejected. If you follow Paul through Acts you’ll find that he was rejected everywhere he went. He was beaten, ridiculed, and run out of town, but he didn’t stop speaking about Jesus. Here, in Acts 18, when he was rejected at the synagogue, he went next door to the home of Titius Justus and continued to share the Good News about Jesus. He didn’t change his message, but he did change his location. Listen, we are not called to be successful in sharing our faith, we’re not called to be eloquent in sharing our faith, we’re not called to be effective in sharing our faith…we are called to share our faith in Jesus. The results are in the hands of God, but the work of sharing who Jesus is and what He has done is in our hands.
I will promise you this: If you and I will be faithful in carrying out the call of God to share Jesus with others then He will strengthen you, He will encourage you, and He will supply you with everything you need to keep pressing on regardless of whether or not you are accepted or rejected by others. Paul must have been feeling a bit down and discouraged at some point in Corinth because we read that the Lord spoke to Paul one night. Look at Acts 18:9-11 with me.
9 One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:9-11 NIV)
That night visit from the Lord was such an encouragement to Paul that he stayed in Corinth for 18 months “teaching them the word of God.” Do you remember what we read back in Acts 18:5? Let me refresh your memory. Luke told us, “Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.” Eighteen months of Bible study. Now that you know the city and people of Corinth, all of the problems they had going on in their city and their lives, just think of the sermons Paul could have preached! Paul was like a broken record-he taught the word of God day-in and day-out. Here’s the thing, Paul did talk about sexuality, he did address idolatry, he talked about competition and self-promotion, but he did so through the lens of the Cross. The letter to the church in Corinth is the intersection of the theology of the cross with everyday life lived in the city.
I’ve told you about Paul’s first visit to Corinth and how he planted the church, but our study will be going through Paul’s letter to the people in the pews in Corinth which took place some time later. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul talks about his “previous” letter. That would actually be 1 Corinthians, but we’ve lost that letter. That letter was sent to clarify the misunderstanding we talked about earlier. In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Paul talks about the news he had received from members of Chloe’s household who had traveled to Ephesus where Paul was ministering. There were problems that Paul needed to know about. What were they? Well, let’s read together.
11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:11-12 NIV)
Truth be known, this was only one of many problems that were going on in the church in Corinth. In response, Paul sat down and wrote a letter, what we know as 1 Corinthians, in about 54 A.D. Through and through, from beginning to end, the letter addresses what is taking place in the church, the city, and the lives of God’s people, but Paul does so through the lens of the cross. It was an incredible diverse church, Jews and Gentiles, folks with deep pockets and those who were financially poor, there were those of noble standing and those who had come out of some pretty sketchy and embarrassing lifestyles. Paul reminded them that what they were was not nearly as important as what they had become through Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul writes,
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV)
That’s great news for you and me. Who among us doesn’t have things in our past that we are not proud of, secret sins that we hope nobody finds out about, or a reputation that it seems like we can’t escape? There may be someone here this morning who is living in the shadows even now, even this morning. You need to know that just like those in Corinth, you can be “washed,” you can be “sanctified,” you can be “justified” this very morning through the grace and mercy of Jesus being offered to you. Won’t you confess your need to Him? Invite Him to take the reigns of your life and lead you from day-to-day?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 13, 2020
Introduction to 1 Corinthians