Overview: 1 Corinthians

By | September 2, 2019

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to a church community that Paul knew really well. Corinth was a major port city in the
ancient world and had lots of temples to Greek and Roman gods. It was a big
economic center and so Paul strategically came here as a missionary. He spent a year and a half there getting to know people, talking to them
about Jesus and a whole bunch of people became followers of Jesus and formed a
church community. You can read about all of this in Acts chapter 18. So after a while Paul moved on to start
churches in other cities and he started getting reports that things were not
going well at all back at the church in Corinth. He was
plagued by all kinds of problems and that’s why he wrote this letter. It’s
broken up into five main parts along with the final greeting. And these five
sections correspond to five main problems that Paul is addressing. And so
the letter reads like a collection of short essays on different topics but
there are these core ideas that unite all of the pieces together. So here’s
what he does in each section. He describes the problem, but then he always responds
to that problem with some part of the story of the gospel, which is the good
news about Jesus. And he shows how they’re actually not living out what
they say they believe. And so this letter is all about learning to think about every
area of life through the lens of gospel. So let’s dive in and see how he does it. In chapters one through four the problem is that there are these divisions in the
church. There are some other teachers who had come through town since Paul left–a guy
named Apollos, and then Peter, and people had picked their favorite teacher and then
became groupies around that leader and then started to talk bad and disrespect
people who favored another leader or teacher. And so Paul, his response to this
is kind of sarcastic and sharp. He says, “You have to be kidding me! The church is not a popularity contest.
The church is the community of people who are centered around Jesus. Its
leaders and its teachers are simply servants of Jesus. So while you might
prefer one leader more than another, it’s not worth dividing over and
certainly not speaking poorly about each other. The center of the church is Jesus and
the good news about who he is and what he’s done. In chapters five through seven,
Paul addresses some problems related to sex. There were a number of people
sleeping around in the church– one guy with his stepmother and a number of other
people still worshipping at the local temples to Greek gods and sleeping with
the prostitutes who worked there. Not only that, but there were people in the
church who were saying that this was all just fine. They said, “Hey, we’re free in
Christ! God’s grace is bottomless, right? It’s fine.” And Paul said it’s not fine. And with the
gospel in hand he shows just how wrong-headed this kind of thinking is. He
says, “Remember first of all, Jesus died for your sins, including the ruin of
broken relationships that’s caused by sexual misconduct. And so if you’re a
Christian, sexual integrity is one of the main ways that we respond to Jesus’
love and grace.” Paul also reminds them that just as Jesus was physically raised
from the dead, so our bodies will be raised from the dead. Which means this: if
your body is being redeemed by Jesus now and in the future, then what you do with
your body matters. It matters a lot. And it’s not
yours to do whatever you want with. Paul is being super clear. Being a follower of Jesus
involves no compromise when it comes to sexual integrity. In chapters 8 through 10 the issue is about
food, but not just food preferences like “Do you like or dislike a certain food?” The
issue the Corinthians were divided over is meat that came from animals sacrificed in
the local temples to Greek and Roman gods. And there was a split between the
Jewish and non-Jewish Christians about how to respond to this issue. And once
again Paul appeals to some core ideas from the gospel. He says our allegiance
first and foremost is to Jesus as Lord, not to any other gods. And so if you’re
in a situation where there’s meat that’s been dedicated to another god and there
are people around who might watch you and conclude, “Oh, look! Christians
worship Jesus and they can worship other gods too.” Paul says if that’s the scenario,
don’t eat the meat. Your loyalty is to Jesus and you should love those people
more than yourself and not mislead them. But Paul quickly qualifies this and says,
“Listen, as Christians we believe God is the Creator of all things including that
animal. And the temple idols, we believe, are just pieces of wood and stone. So if
there’s no one around who’s going to misunderstand your actions and you’re
hungry, eat up! You’re free as a new human in Christ to follow your
conscience in these kind of debatable matters. So what makes it ok in one
situation to eat but not in the other? The core principle is love. Love will
deny itself and look out for the well-being of other people. And love,
God’s love, is at the core of the gospel. It’s what Jesus did when he died for us
and so Paul says it’s what Christians should do for other people. In chapters
11 through 14 Paul moves on and addresses problems in their weekly
worship gathering. There were some people who were having really powerful
spiritual experiences in the gathering and so they would start praying out loud
in unknown languages. There were other people who might start sharing a
teaching or a word from God and then someone would get up and interrupt them
because they wanted to share. And it all was really chaotic and it was distracting
people, especially visitors, from hearing the gospel. So in these chapters Paul helps them
think first of all about the purpose of this gathering– to help them see what
kind of behaviors are appropriate. He says the gathering is a place where
God’s Spirit should be working through everybody and it should happen in a
unified way. So he developes this cool metaphor about the church as a human
body. It’s one but it has all these different parts and each part serves a
unique and important role. So he goes on to name a whole bunch of things that
the Spirit does through all these different people, all for the
building up of the church (that’s a key phrase in these chapters). And Paul
concludes that the highest value in the gathering should be a concept central to
the gospel–God’s love. Love is the key word in these chapters too. Love will
compel each person in the gathering to use their role to serve and seek the
well-being of others. So Paul applies all this to the Corinthian’s problems. Some people think the purpose of the
gathering is to have intense spiritual experiences or to get a chance to speak
their mind. And Paul says, “Listen, I’m a big fan of
powerful experiences of prayer but if it distracts other people or freaks them
out, I should stop it because I’m loving myself more than I am loving those
people.” The gathering around Jesus should be orderly so everybody can learn and sing and worship and hear God speaking to them. The last problem Paul addresses is the
issue of Jesus’ resurrection and the future hope of Jesus’ followers. There
were some people in the church who were saying that the idea of resurrection is
ridiculous and doesn’t really matter to being a Christian. And Paul reacts to
this big time. He begins by saying that the resurrection is an indispensable
part of the gospel. We believe in it because of the hundreds of eye witnesses
that saw Jesus alive in a physical body after being publicly executed by
the Romans. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Paul
says, that his death was meaningless, we are all still lost in our sin and selfishness, we
should just stop being Christians. Paul then shows in detail how the
resurrection was Jesus’ victory over death and evil, how it’s a source of life
and power for us now in the present and how it’s a promise of future hope for
the whole world. It’s because of the resurrection that we have a reason to be unified
around Jesus. It’s the reason we have motivation for sexual integrity. It’s the source of power for loving other people more than ourselves and
ultimately it’s our hope for victory over death. And so, Paul concludes, we do believe
Jesus was raised from the dead, which means this: the gospel is not just moral
advice or a recipe for private spirituality. It’s an announcement about
Jesus that opens up a whole new reality. And that’s what 1 Corinthians is all
about–seeing every part of life through the lens of that gospel.

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