This letter of Paul is rich in pastoral concern. The church of Corinth had need of the sheperdizing presence of Christ. There were many sins in that church that cried to the God of righteousness. The faithful members must have been discouraged with their brethren. Paul himself must have sighed more than once when he learned of the sins committed by the membership.
What must Paul do as a pastor? He must write a practical letter. No, he does not want to come with a rod (I Cor. 4:21). He comes to them with the Word of God, brought in love and tenderness, full of Christian restraint. The great theme of this message is God is faithful! Twice he refers to this promise (I Cor. 1:9) and (I Cor. 10:13). With God, all things are possible, also in giving the grace needed to deal with such a weak congregation. The faithfulness of God assures the effective ministry of the Word.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE EPISTLE
The church of Corinth began when Paul visited Corinth on his second missionary journey. While he and Silas had intended to go into Asia, the Spirit suffered them not (Acts 16:6). Instead, the vision of the Macedonian Man was given to Paul with the urgent request, “Come over and help us,” Acts 16:9. The Holy Spirit blessed Paul’s ministry in Macedonia. Corinth was a city in Greece to which Paul and Silas and also Timothy went to preach. It was, however, not just another city. Corinth was an acropolis (city built upon a rock) which was strategically located for the military security of the entire area. It was also the center of commerce, since it was on the isthmus which joined the peninsula with the mainland. It also was beautifully adorned for comfortable living.
Besides being prosperous and well populated, the city was infamous for its sinful ways. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say: “At night it was made hideous by the brawls and lewd songs of drunken revelry. In the daytime its markets and squares swarmed with Jewish peddlers, foreign traders, sailors, soldiers, athletes in training, boxing, wrestlers, charioteers, racing-men, betting-men, courtesans, slaves, idlers, and parasites of every description. The corrupting worship of Aphrodite, with its hordes of hierodouloi (temple prostitutes) was dominant and all over the Gr-Rom world. ‘To behave as a Corinthian’ was a proverbial synonym for leading a low, shameless, and immoral life.”
No wonder Paul wrote, “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling,” (I Cor. 2:3). What missionary and new pastor does not have that same fear when he takes up labor in a large, strange city? Who is able to bring the gospel to such a people? Where does one begin? What does one do and what must he say? This letter gives us many worthwhile insights into Paul’s missionary methods while at the same time it sets forth his pastoral concern for the church newly established.
According to Acts 18:2, Paul sought out tentmakers, since that was his occupation. He made acquaintance with Aquilla and Priscilla who were tentmakers. Through this contact, Paul soon had opportunity to preach in the Jewish synagogue. By the grace of God Crispus and Sosthenes, chief rulers in the synagogue, believed. It did not take long before the usual opposition came from the Jews; but the house of Justus, a proselyte, was opened to him, and in that home he preached to both Jews and Gentiles. A church was organized and Paul labored among them for 18 months.
Part of Paul’s labors on his third missionary journey was to spend three years working in Ephesus. It was during this time that Paul heard about the spiritual condition of the church at Corinth. Undoubtedly, Apollos and Sosthenes, who continued to labor in Corinth, kept Paul informed on the situation in the church. Paul also received word from the house of Chloe (I Cor. 1:11). What impressed him most was an official letter from the congregation whichcontained questions seeking his advice (I Cor. 7:1, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1). This letter was brought to him personally by three men, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). This gave occasion for Paul to write this letter and to deal with the problems that concerned them. The year for this letter is estimated to be A.D. 55, about three years after his first visit to Corinth.
A MESSAGE OF CORRECTION
Taking into consideration the nature of the problems raised in this letter, it is comforting to examine Paul’s address (I Cor. 1: l-9). He identifies himself as Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the church of God at Corinth. sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints. He commends them for their faithful use of Christ’s gifts (I Cor. 1:7). There is a lesson here for us: before we deal with the sins of God’s people and of Christ’s church, we must focus on the evidence of God’s grace and see what good there is. This will put us in the proper frame of mind to keep our spiritual balance.
The importance of this can be seen in the problems raised in the letter which came to Paul from the congregation. These were big problems. Some dealt with marriage, others with eating meat offered to idols, and with the use of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues. In addition to these, other issues were brought to Paul’s attention by other people. These included: party strife, incest by a member and lack of discipline, lawsuits between members, the rule of women in the church, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, the doctrine of the resurrection denied. Which one of our pastors would like to accept a call to the church of Corinth? Is Paul furious? Listen, “I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which is given you in Jesus Christ,” (I Cor. 1:4). That’s evidence of a true pastor!
Let’s follow the counsel which Paul as an instrument of the Holy Spirit-now gives to them and to us today.
1. Divisions in the church and the need to bow before the gospel of Christ (I Cor. 1:10-4:21). There were parties in the church who created division by following certain leaders. Some followed Paul, probably the Gentile element. Others followed Apollos, who was eloquent and polished. Still others were of Cephas, perhaps the Jewish members of the church. And finally others said they followed Christ—it might be that they had heard Christ preach and claimed more authority, or they were disgusted with all the rest and insisted they should all follow Christ (I Cor. 1:12). Paul instructed them by pointing out that ministers of the gospel are not like philosophers who have their schools of followers about them. Instead they are servants of Christ who direct their attention to their Lord and Master (I Cor. 1:10-17). Because this is true, ministers are not in competition with each other; rather they complement one another in their service of Christ (I Cor. 3:1-8). The success of the ministry does not lie within the power of the minister, but with the Holy Spirit Who gives him the means whereby he builds the temple of God (I Cor. 3:9-33). Hence the congregation must evaluate the minister, not on the basis of natural talents, but on the evidence of his being a faithful servant of Christ (I Cor. 4:1-21). What makes a faithful servant of Christ? Two things: the message he brings is Christ and Him crucified and not the wisdom of the Greeks; and the communication of that message is by preaching and not dialogue common to Greek philosophy (I Cor. 1:18-31). By following this instruction, the minister will flee foolish pride, and the congregation will avoid party strife. The entire congregation will be thankful for each minister that Christ gives to the church.
2. The sin of incest and its related lack of discipline (I Cor. 5:1-13). A member of the church of Corinth had married his father’s wife (vs. 1). We note that there was a variety of sexual evils present in this congregation. Corinth was well known for its fornication and adultery associated with the worship of Aphrodite. Some members of the church were recently converted from heathenism, and this explains why these sins were as pronounced as they were in Corinth. This man’s sin was in that he married (he had, vs. 1) his father’s wife (stepmother). This was incest as forbidden by the law of God (Lev. 18:8) and so terrible that even the heathen abhorred it. Yet the church of Corinth did not discipline this member. Paul ascribes this lack to their pride, vs. 2, for discipline of a member of the church involvesmutual acknowledgment of sin, something pride detests. He therefore exhorts them to proceed with public excommunication with the acknowledgment that if such a person does not repent, he will continue in the grasp of Satan and be lost. He presents two reasons why this is so necessary: first, to lead such a gross sinner to repentance. Paul did not lose sight of the fact that discipline is positive, unto salvation, vs. 5. The second reason is that the church may remain pure, since such discipline will remove from her midst the evil leaven, vs. 7. Even as the Old Testament Church kept the feast of Unleavened Bread, acknowledging the putting away of sin, so the New Testament Church must observe a daily feast by putting away the evil leaven of sin out of their lives. Paul quickly adds that this does not mean that the Corinthians may not have any dealing with the wicked people of the city; rather this concerns those who claim to be members of the body of Christ but do not walk in sanctification (vs. 10).
3. Going to law before the heathen (I Cor. 4:1-11). There were legal squabbles between members of the congregation. These pertained to property rights, debts, and such like. In anger, they had law suits against each other to try to reclaim what they considered to be their lawful property. Paul forbids this for three reasons. First, considering that they themselves will one day judge the heathen and even preside over angels, vs. 2, 3, they should be ashamed that they even need heathen judges. Shame on them that they can’t settle these matters among themselves. Second, being converted, how can they esteem the heathen rather than their fellow members when it comes to securing justice, vs. 4-6. They should call on someone from their own midst to help settle differences. Thirdly, their spirit is wrong: they are determined to get their rights at any cost. They should rather consider all the implications of such a public hassle between Christians and rather take loss than make the name of Christ a public reproach, vs. 7.
He then turns the tables and points to those who cause these offenses in the first place. Why is it necessary for some members of the church to go to court against fellow members? The answer is that some members are guilty of defrauding their brothers. This is serious, for the unrighteous shall not enter into the kingdom, vs. 9, 10. Rather, they should live as those who are sanctified in Christ, vs. 11.
The point that we should see in this admonition about not going to court is this: Christians should not go to court against each other. It may be necessary when dealing with the ungodly to appeal to the law for protection. Paul appealed to Caesar also. So also the church may seek the protection of law against some unlawful attempt to tax, to confiscate property, and such like. It is altogether different when members of the church, who profess to follow Christ, do this. The main thrust in such instances is that they should seek to find some leader, some wise and respected one out of their midst who can moderate the differences and resolve them amongst each other. It is even better to suffer wrong than cast public abuse upon the church of Christ or fellow Christians by means of such lawsuits.
(to be continued)