- A City Of Degradation
- A Church In Division
- A Crisis Of Doctrine
Now as you can see from your study sheet, we're starting to read from Acts chapter 18 - you might think it's a bit strange to be reading from the Acts of the Apostles when we're starting a study in the book of 1 Corinthians, but what I want to do for you, as your title outlines, is explain the reason that this book was written: "The Reason It Was Written". It's important, I believe, to lay a foundation, a contextual foundation in an introduction to this book of the Bible. So much of the false doctrine that is around today is because of men, some very sincere people, even believers, who take verses out of context, but we want to settle down the historical and biblical context of what we find here in the book of 1 Corinthians.
So let's read in the book of the Acts of the Apostles chapter 18: "After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them". Scholars tell us that this was approximately AD50-51, and of course you will know that Paul is now on his second missionary journey. As he goes on this journey, he comes to the city of Corinth and he meets two people, two Jewish people, a man and his wife: Aquila and Priscilla. He joins with them - they are Jews who, verse 2 tells us, have been ordered out of Rome because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Roman government at the time, Claudius the Governor had cast all the Jews out of Rome. But Paul has been drawn to these people because they are Jews, and also, as we read on in verse 3, they were also tentmakers - they had the same trade as the apostle Paul. "And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers". So he stayed with these two, and he worked with them making tents day after day. If the timetable that we have in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul as he's in the city of Ephesus is something to go by here, we can tell that Paul probably finished his tent making at 11:00am, and he began preaching the Gospel right through to 4:00pm in the afternoon. We know that because of the certain places that Paul was preaching the Gospel during the day, he could only have been there in the afternoon. So he was plying his trade tent making very early in the morning, and then at about 11:00am he would go and preach the Gospel right through the day until 4:00pm - and you know the apostle Paul, he wasn't a well man, and to be doing that in the heat of the day under the Mediterranean sun was something else, yet he did it and God blessed him in it.
So we read on: "He reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks. And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ". When Silas and Timothy came Paul give up his tent making, and he began to rely upon their support, and both of them in the synagogue ministered to the Jews. But as we see from verse 6, when the Jews opposed themselves, and blasphemed themselves, against Paul, "Paul shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles". The Jews, as Paul and Timotheus and Silas went to them in the synagogue, were hostile and blasphemous toward the Gospel. So Paul left the Jews and decided that he was going to preach... he said: "henceforth I will go onto the Gentiles. And he departed thence, and entered into a certain man's house, named Justus, one that worshipped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue. And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized". So Paul, as he was preaching the Gospel now to the Gentiles, was finding that there was fruit for his labour - there were people believing the Gospel and there were people getting baptised as a witness of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But despite the success of the Gospel among the Gentiles, the next verse that we're going to read insinuates and implies that Paul was downcast for some reason - some scholars would even say that perhaps he had a touch of depression. He felt apprehension at the great task of going to the city of the Corinthians and preaching the Gospel, and he needed a touch from God, he needed encouragement, he needed strength - and by the very hand of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself we see that that is exactly what he got. Verse 9: "Then spake the Lord" - that's the Lord Jesus - "to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city". The Lord told him: 'There's nobody going to hurt you', and I believe deep down in my heart that Paul feared getting stoned again, getting beaten as he had done many times in other cities preaching the Gospel, sometimes left for dead. He was going into a city, as we'll see a little later, which was one of the most ungodly cities on the face of the earth, and he feared the consequences of his preaching the Gospel - even though it was beginning to bear fruit and people were being baptised and coming to Christ. Well, we read in the next verse: "he continued there a year and six months", he spent 18 months or so in that place of Corinth. Day by day as he ministered among those who were believing in Christ, and he was getting more and more encouraged, it says 'teaching the word of God among [those who believed]', his heart was being knit together with those who were coming to faith in Corinth one by one.
Now a massive clash was inevitable. I want you to picture this: the apostle Paul is coming in as the first preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into an extremely pagan and idolatrous, and immoral city of Corinth. It was inevitable that there was going to be a power encounter, a clash between godliness and ungodliness. Paul was coming preaching the straight and the narrow way, the way of God - yet Corinth was a city that stood for the broad way that leadeth to destruction, the way of sinful flesh. Hallelujah! We've got the hindsight tonight in our Bible study to know that truth won the day. The church of Jesus Christ was formed, a little assembly, and as we read through the book of 1 Corinthians especially, we find that it wasn't too long until this little newly formed church began to bear the marks of the surrounding Corinthian lifestyle that they had known before their conversion. The church of Jesus Christ in Corinth that was meant to stand for righteousness and truth and sanctification in the Holy Ghost, was beginning to mirror the city that it was based in. As Horatius Bonar, that great saint of God, said: 'I looked for the church and I found it in the world; and I looked for the world and I found it in the church'. That is exactly what happened to the church in Corinth. They began to resemble and assimilate the city in which they lived, and all the sins that went along with it.
Three years later, after Paul had visited this little place on his second missionary journey, as he was in the city of Ephesus, he received a letter from the church of Corinth. They were describing to him the awful difficulties that they were finding, facing the world and all the flesh and the devil that they had to grapple with in their own hometown. Now the book of 1 Corinthians that we have before us tonight is Paul the apostle's reply to that letter he received from the church of Corinth when he was residing in Ephesus. It is also a reply to the verbal account that he received from the house of Chloe that we read about later in this book of 1 Corinthians, that there were divisions among the people in this church, and it was brought him by word of mouth, a messenger of three people.
I want us to look this evening, because we often hear this cry among the church of Jesus Christ: 'Let's get back to the New Testament church'. My question is: 'Do you really want to get back to the New Testament church?'. Of course we want to get back to the ideals of what is laid down for the principles of the New Testament church, but if we were to go back to the reality of what the New Testament church was like - specifically in the book of 1 Corinthians - we would be in serious trouble! Not only where there troubles known within the church, among the church, there were troubles known to be in the church by the world outside - they knew that the church in Corinth was a shambles, and it was only reflecting the sinfulness that was outside in the town of Corinth. It was defiled, they were wrapped up in immorality, they were wrapped up in drunkenness, they were wrapped up in what we called 'antinomianism' - which is simply 'against the law' it means in Latin, which means that they believed that the principle of grace that we have in the Gospel could let them do as they liked. As Paul addressed it in Romans: 'Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?' - they thought because the slate had been wiped clean, and they'd been forgiven, that they could go out and do what they wanted because God had forgiven them - and it brought such immorality into their lives and into the church.
In chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, if you turn to it, and verse 12, you will see that there were divisions in the church - we'll look at this, probably, next week - but there were at least four factions, political sects if you like, coming through in the church. They all had their leaders and they were following them. It was a defiled church, a divided church, and it was certainly a disgraced church - because the church exists, 'ecclesia', the Greek word for 'church', are the 'called-out ones' to be a light and to be salt in the generation, to be a witness to the glory of Jesus Christ in a dark and a dead world, but this church was disgracing the name of Christ.
I want you to imagine a church like this. This is a church that is wrecked by divisions. Powerful leaders promote themselves, they have a band of loyal followers, they're charismatic personalities. One of those leaders, probably, is having an affair with his own stepmother - and instead of disciplining that man, the church of Jesus Christ, some of them at least, boast of the freedom that he has in Christ to do such a thing! 'He's forgiven! He's a child not of the law but of grace, and he can do it!'. Some of the church were suing each other in the secular courts before men in the world, some of the church liked to visit prostitutes. Of course, they weren't all that bad, in the other side and faction of the church they made a backlash against this awful immorality and sinfulness, and they went to the other extreme and said that because of their brethren's immorality men and women in Christ should remain celibate, they should not touch a man or a woman, they should have no sexual relationships and that ought to be the Christian ideal. Among that church the debate raged about how far a man or woman who is converted should break their associations and their habits from their pagan sinful past, and how holy they really should be.
We move from immorality and we look at church practice, and we see that among them there were disagreements about the role of men and the role of women in the assembly which only served to add to the confusion of how the church operated in Corinth. We read later on that there were alleged prophecies in the book, people who were speaking in tongues - or at least reported to be speaking in tongues - yet they were doing it on a regular basis, but they weren't doing it according to the biblical plan and principle that the Holy Spirit had laid down. All it was doing was adding chaos to the church! If you think that all that wasn't bad enough, you find, as we get to chapter 15 of the book, that there were even those - and mind they were believers - who did not believe in the bodily resurrection, future tense, of believers; nor did they believe, past tense, in the real bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a church of Jesus Christ, and I would hazard a guess that there's no modern church upon the face of the earth that has such a cluster of problems facing them all at one and the same time - but this church did.
What a church as an example of how we ought to behave, how we ought to be holy, how we ought to regulate ourselves in an ungodly generation - because our generation is filled with drunkenness, they are drunk on wealth, alcohol, intoxication, drug abuse. They intoxicate themselves with every type of immorality and vice, and we as believers find ourselves a little bit sympathetic, I hope, with the Corinthians in the first epistle, because we too are trying to live godly, Christlike lives in a world that is full of ungodliness and wickedness. The first thing I want you to see in our introduction tonight is the city of Corinth that Paul is writing to, and where this church resides. The first thing about it is this: it is a city of degradation. There are three ways in which we find this as we look into historical records. Now, by the time that Paul actually came to the city of Corinth - he arrived here in autumn AD50-51 - it was a Roman colony. Now you will know, if you know your atlas, that Corinth was in the middle of Greece, and it once was ruled by the Greeks - it was a great city when they ruled it - and then there was a revolt against the Romans, and they lost the revolt and Rome took over the city of Corinth. When Paul comes to the city of Corinth, Rome has been ruling in Corinth for over 100 years.
Now as we come to it, Corinth is a strategic commercial harbour - that's the first thing I want you to take down on your notes - it was a strategic commercial harbour. The location of Corinth on the map was the secret of its opulence and its financial and material success. Now I want you to look up here on the screen - I had a laser pointer, I'm trying to keep up with technology, but some of you are that blind that you couldn't see it up here on the board, so I had to get a stick, and there's a white bit on the stick for those of you who are blind so that you can see it! Now, if I can get my bearings, you can see over here that this is Greece - OK? And that little dot, the number 5 there, that little black dot is Corinth, and you can see that Corinth is just on a little peninsula that joins the ocean to the west - the Adriatic Ocean or the Ionian ocean - and the Aegean Sea over here. Now what that means, simply, is that Corinth was a harbour for both the west ocean and the east ocean. People who were travelling from the west on trade would come and they would dock in the harbour of Corinth. People who were coming from the eastern world would do the same. People who were travelling down from Athens, the capital, would come right through Corinth to travel down into this region that is now part of Greece. People who were coming up from the South would also go through Corinth. So you had all the nations of the world, if you can zoom in there David, you would see it maybe a bit clearer - you have all the nations, almost, of the known modern world coming through this little metropolis of Corinth - it is like the centre of humanity and civilisation of its day. It's controlling these two seas, the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea, all the traffic - and you can imagine the goods that were pouring through the gates of the country through Corinth, coming on into Greece. Dean Farer (sp?) writes in his commentary about it, listen to this: 'Objects of luxury soon found their way to the markets, which were visited by every nation in the civilised world. Arabian balsam, Phoenician dates, Libyan ivory, Babylonian carpets, Selician goat's hair, Lyconian wool Phrygian slaves'. In fact, he calls it 'the Vanity Fair of the east'. Some men in the day called it 'The Bridge of Greece', and you can see why it's called that - it's bridging the two peninsulas together, but it's almost bridging the whole known world together. Someone even called it 'the lounge of Greece' - everyone went to Corinth to rest and to live it up, it was an extremely wealthy place, it was populous, and it was a pluralistic city.
If you go to chapter 1 you will see this, that it talks about Jews, it talks about Greeks, it talks about Romans - the whole book talks about a man called Gaius, which is a Roman name; Crispus, Justus, Fortunatus, Achiacus. If you look at chapter 1 and verses 26 to 29, Paul says: 'For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise'. Now we know that this part of Greece, Corinth, was an extremely intellectual place; it was an influential city in the whole of the Mediterranean world, the aristocrats lived in it. Not only where the the rich and the high-fluting, the first-class and upper-class of society, but Paul tells us that there were also slaves, poor people and the uneducated. It was a hotchpotch of every aspect of a cosmopolitan metropolis that you could imagine, and the population is reckoned to be around 500 to 700,000, which in its day was an extreme population when you consider that this little piece of land is only about four miles wide - 500,000 to 700,000 people.
Now, it was a strategic commercial harbour, but I want you to see the wisdom of the great apostle here because Paul was not just rolling the dice or casting lots to go to Corinth to witness and to preach the Gospel, because he knew that if he could have a Gospel base in Corinth every Tom, Dick and Harry from all over the Mediterranean world would be passing through it and would have an influence of some kind in the Gospel. There was wisdom to the apostle Paul's missionary journeys, you should note that. It was a strategic point for the Gospel, and one of the reasons why Paul is writing this letter is because the Gospel witness was at stake because of the behaviour of the church at Corinth at such a strategic point. People were going away, and what kind of a perception of Christianity were they having when they were looking at the Christians from the city of Corinth?
It was a strategic commercial harbour, but it's also strategic for the Gospel - but the second thing I want you to see about the degradation of this city is that it was a hotbed of heathenism, a hotbed of the heathenism. Corinth, and Greece of course, had many gods - but probably the most famous god of them all was Aphrodite, the goddess of love. If you go to the next slide there David, you will see - this is an old picture of Corinth, I don't know whether you can see it clearly - but you can go to Greece and you can see this today, this is the ruins of Corinth. It's called Acro-Corinth, and this is a hill up here which is called the Acro-Corinth Hill - scholars tell us that on top of that hill was the temple of Aphrodite. She was worshipped by these people, and I don't want a go into too much detail, but I have to do it for your understanding of this book - the cult of Aphrodite has been called 'a cult dedicated to the glorification of sex'. It's something akin to the worship of Baal and Ashteroth in the Old Testament, and in the old Corinthian city that was owned by the Greeks it's said that up in that temple to Aphrodite there were 100 vestal virgins, a hundred ceremonial religious prostitutes, and they would be serving Aphrodite the goddess of love there - and if you wanted to bring devotion and worship to that goddess you would go and copulate with those prostitutes in that temple. The historians tell us that at night those prostitutes, all 100 of them, would come down from that temple and they would infiltrate the whole of the town, and they would ply their wares at night for money, and then in the morning they would go back to the temple.
That is the kind of city that Corinth was, that is the kind of heathenism that was apparent in that particular day. One Greek proverb came out of the practice of these prostitutes, and went like this: 'It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth'. In addition to the temple of Aphrodite there was the temple of Apollo - this is the temple of Apollo, you can see it today, that's the ruins of it. The temple of Apollo is right in the city of Corinth. If you thought the worship of Aphrodite was bad, Apollo was the god of music, the god of song, and the god of poetry - but he was also the god of ideal beauty for the male sex, the ideal figure, a kind of Adonis. We're told that there were nude statues of Apollos everywhere around the city, and they were in sensual poses. It's very difficult to believe, but the devotee's of the god Apollos were encouraged to have physical displays of their devotion with what was called 'the boys of Apollos'. You can read between the lines, but it's safe to say that Corinth was not only a centre of prostitution, but Corinth was a centre of child abuse and homosexuality in the first century world.
The reputation of Corinth was so bad that there was a term that was coined out of 'Corinth' which meant 'to fornicate', 'to Corinthianise'. They took the name of the city and used it for that awful sin, or a person who was called 'a Corinthian girl' was said to be a loose woman. Aelian, the late Greek writer, said that if ever a Corinthian was shown upon the stage in a Greek play he was always shown as being drunk - to be a Corinthian was to be a man, a caricature that was reckless, riotous, full of debauchery and immorality. Not only was there a temple to Aphrodite, not only was there the shrine and temple to Apollos, but there were many other gods and religious shrines - most notably Aesculapius, the god of healing, as well as sites of worship for the god Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the seafarers. They even borrowed other gods from other countries, and there was the Greek counterpart of Isis, Poseidon - you may have heard of the film 'The Poseidon Adventure', the Greek god of seafarers.
Perhaps you weren't religious like that, and you didn't follow any of the gods in Corinth, but even if you didn't 'a little bit less than religion' was the philosophy that pervaded in the society. There were, pervading people's minds and hearts, the average 5'8" Joe Bloggs in the street, the ideals of individualism: 'I am who I am. I will do what I want. I will do everything my way'. The ideal of equality: 'We are all equal and we can all do as we like'. The ideal freedom without any restraints or laws, just freedom and liberality to excess - and significantly in Corinth there was the ideal of distrust of any authority whatsoever. I hope you're beginning to paint in your mind a picture of the city of degradation, Corinth.
The third thing: it was a strategic commercial harbour, secondly it's a hotbed of heathenism, but thirdly it was also a centre of athletics. If David goes to the next slide you'll see here an actual town plan of Corinth, and there was in Corinth what is called the Ithsmian Games, and they were second only in importance to the Olympics, and you know how popular the Olympics were in Greece - well this was the second best. It was held every two years in the city of Corinth, it lasted several days, it took up athletics, equestrian, and musical competitions. It was conducted in Corinth's huge stadium, and I hope you can see it there - that's it there, the massive outdoor stadium at the top left, and some of them were held in the indoor stadium just below it. The outdoor stadium seated 18,000 people, the indoor stadium held 3000 people. So this was a city that wasn't just popular for sin and for trade and for religion and for excess, but it was popular for everything, it was the place to be! Even at this great athletic event there was great extravagance and licentiousness. Corinth, in the Mediterranean world in the time that we're looking at it, it was beginning to eclipse - I believe it had already eclipsed the city of Athens that we all know too well. Gordon Fee, the commentator 1 Corinthians, says this: 'At once Corinth was the New York, the Los Angeles, and the Las Vegas of the ancient world'. Charles Swindoll says: 'It was a sailor's favourite port, it was a prodigal's paradise, it was a policeman's nightmare, and it was a preacher's graveyard'.
Do you want to know what Corinth was really like? Turn with me to Romans chapter 1 for a moment - David, you can turn that off, I think that's all the slides for tonight, I'm doing that so that you can really get a picture of this in your mind before we launch full scale into the book. Now of course Paul is writing in the epistle to the Romans to the church in Rome, and he's categorising the various sins that are found in the church of Rome, but what you have to remember is where Paul was writing this epistle from. Does anybody know? Hazard a guess! Corinth! Paul was writing this epistle from Corinth to the church at Rome, and as he writes it I wonder was he looking out of his window - and remember that Corinth was a colony settled by Rome, and people say that when there was a colony settled by Rome it was like a little Rome, all that happened in Rome was happening in the colony. So we read, verse 18: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them".
Do you think he was thinking of Corinth as he was writing to Rome? You might say is it any wonder that Paul in chapter 2 and verse 3 of 1 Corinthians, if you look down that it, he says: "I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling" - wouldn't you be if you were called to be the missionary and the evangelist to the city of Corinth where there's no other believer? The modern-day Sodom of the world - 'So what?', you might say, 'What are you telling me all this for? Why are you going into so much graphic detail?' - the reason why I'm telling you all this at the beginning of our study is that if the love of God in Christ Jesus could take root in a place like Corinth, it can take root anywhere! It was the most populated, wealthy, commercially minded and sex obsessed city of Eastern Europe, but it was the most powerful witness of the Gospel when Paul the apostle was there, and it proves that the Gospel is powerful anywhere! Paul, who is writing the book of the Romans, could also say that where sin abounds, grace doth more abound! Does that not encourage you? You wouldn't think it to look at some of you! Does it encourage you?
A city of degradation, yet God moved in. That's why this epistle was written. The second thing I want you to see on your sheet is, the reason why the book written: because there was a church in division. In 1 Corinthians 1 verse 26 and following we read about division. Verse 13, if you look at it, he says: 'Is Christ divided?', now why does he ask this? Because the church is the body of Christ. Paul says in the verse before: 'Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ'. Is Christ divided? Are there factions in the body of Christ? 'Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?' - there were divisions.
Let me give you a bit of a background about Corinthian society and culture. In the city of Corinth there was what was known as 'patrons', it came from Roman society to have a 'patron', and it was just someone who was well-to-do, he was an influential person who took care of individuals and families, and perhaps even at times entire associations of people. He would call those people he was in charge of his 'clients'. So there were these patrons in charge of people, they were rich, wealthy, intellectual, influential, and they would look after little plebs of society. They were people who would provide land, provide jobs, provide money, and even provide legal protection if necessary for the less well-off in their society that were their clients. Now if they did that, if they scratched their client's back, their client had to scratch their back - they had to in some way reciprocate the favours that these patrons were giving to them. With various services including political support and positive public relations, they would try their best to keep well in with their patrons. If you like, if I can make a modern illustration, it's a bit like politics today. You've heard about the 'cash for questions' scandal, that's exactly what was going on in Rome. If you wanted to get something done you paid your patron cash, or you looked after him, or you advertised and gave him free advertising, and he would look after you - he would even fight your case in law if you did what was right by him.
Now, Paul seems to indicate, I believe, that this was beginning to enter into the church and it was causing disunity. There was arrogance among men; men standing up and saying: 'I am on behalf of Apollos', 'I am on behalf of Paul', 'I am on behalf of Peter', 'I am on behalf of Christ' - arrogance and immaturity. They were standing up pretending and setting themselves forth to be the most mature, the most spiritual of the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth. But what I hope most of you know by now, if you're not too old in the Christian faith maybe you don't know it but you'll learn it very soon, sometimes the most immature are often the ones who think that they are most mature. That's why Paul gets sarcastic in chapter 4 verse 8, he says: 'Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you'. He's being sarcastic, 'You don't need the apostle Paul any more, you don't need anybody else, you're great mature Christians in your arrogance and even in your immaturity'.
I believe that their arrogance probably came from the flowery rhetoric that they were able to use, these were great orators that Paul is preaching to here in the church of Corinth. You see, what was in Corinth and in Rome in these days was, if you like, the philosophy of the Sophians. Now, I don't want to blind you with science tonight, but it's important that you know what the Sophists are. You've heard of the name 'Sophia', it's the Greek word for wisdom. The Sophists were people who thought they were the wisest all, wiser than anybody else, and they proved their wisdom by their oratory, by their flowery rhetoric, by how they could speak. To have wisdom was to be able to stand in the great amphitheatres and to speak with great authority and beauty, and they emphasised not so much the content of what they were saying, they didn't look at the truth and the arguments and even the philosophy, all that they were concerned about was the form and how they delivered those things.
Can I remind you, and perhaps jog your memory, that in chapters 1 to 4 what does Paul address? It is the preaching of the cross that we believe in as the church, which is foolishness unto the Greek, and a stumbling block to the Jew, and we don't preach it with - what? Wisdom of words! Lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. It's not how we're preaching the message, it's the message, the foolishness, literally, of the message that is preached that is the power of God unto salvation - first to the Jew and also to the Greek! Do you see it? These men thought that they could take Paul on, and I believe there's fair evidence in this book that one of the divisions was caused by these Sophists. Go into chapter 11 about the Lord's Table, and we see that some people were eating it before the rest - and it was probably the rich who were eating it before the poor, they thought they were greater than the poor, greater orators, flowery in their rhetoric. As we find Paul refusing the money that the church at Corinth wants to give him, you find in their reaction that they can't understand why he'd want to do that, because that's that they live for! They live for material possessions! We find as we go through into the book that believers are taking one another to court, and the likelihood is that it is these patrons that are representing the ordinary believers before the court, doing them favours because these believers were doing them favours in return.
You move on and you find that perhaps there were also sexual favours that were being given, but the main point of all this and me telling you is to show you that these patrons, in fact these leaders of the factions, had a great reluctance to break from the social conventions which served their own interests and reputations in their pagan past, but as they were converted they couldn't let go of it. I believe that above everything else in this book, it is more than likely that it was the social elite that was behind most of the problems in this church!
A church in division, and as we move on through the book we'll look in more detail at that division - but let's look at the third point, because it was not only a church in division, but what sort of filters out of that is the fact that it was a church that had a crisis of doctrine. As we look, and I have been looking at this book, and you know it's heavy stuff, and there's a lot of controversial issues even in Christendom today within this little book, there's a lot of deep subjects. We're going to spend I don't know how many weeks on it, digging and trying to get the answers - no preconceived ideas, but coming to the truth of God. As you look at all the different and varied subjects - there's marriage, there's divorce, there's incest, there's the Lord's Table, there's the headcovering, there's resurrection, there's giving, there's all sorts of things - and you wonder: 'Well, what's the common denominator? Is it possible to have a common denominator? Was there one specific problem in the whole of this book?'.
I believe if you look closely you can find, yes, there is. It can be split into a couple of things, but ultimately it could be defined as this: their pagan religion. They had never let go of the remnants of their pagan religion. Now let me prove this to you, most noteworthy: there was a philosophy in Corinth - now stay with me, because this is important, don't say it's too difficult, some of you can watch a detective film for three hours and don't find out the result until the end, but you stick in there, so stick in here tonight and you'll be blessed. There was a philosophy called 'dualism'. Let me explain it to you: it put the material universe on one side, that means things, your body, things that you can touch, the sensual universe on one side; and it put the spiritual universe on the other side, things to do with God and eternity. It said that essentially the spiritual was potentially good, it was good; but the physical, the material universe, was bad - that's what's called 'dualism' and it was deeply embedded in Greek philosophy, particularly from the days of Plato on, and eventually culminating in what is called 'Gnosticism' which was often the heresy that Paul was speaking against in many of his epistles.
They believed that the body was bad, what the body did was bad, the earth was bad; but the spirit was good. Now you might find a bit of sympathy with that kind of deduction, but I want you to see that that is of the devil himself. The majority of the common people took the view that the body was bad, the majority thought the body was bad - now that leaves a question for us all: what do you do with the appetites that your body has? You have to eat, you have to drink, you have to rest, you have to walk, you have to keep moving to keep alive, there are certain natural affections and instincts that we have also that many of us, if not most of us, have to execute at some time in our lives. So what did they do? Well, there were two different groups who dealt with this problem differently. Most of them in society decided: 'We'll not touch these things at all. We'll not ever eat food, or try to eat as little of it as we can. We'll lock ourselves up from the world, and keep away from all the influences of the world. We'll not ever get married, we'll be celibate for the rest of our days, and we'll suppress any sexual passions or nature that we have and ignore it, and try to work it all out of us and get all of this bad physical stuff away - because it is bad matter'.
They denied themselves, they're called ascetics. We have them with us today, they're called monks. They lock themselves away from the world, because they think that by getting away from the world they can get away from sin - but the fact of the matter is: sin is in the breast and in the heart, and it's not matter that is inherently evil, it is the soul, it's man's nature. But the common people, now I want you to note this in the light of 1 Corinthians, the common people decided to address this problem a different way. They thought to themselves: 'Well, if everything in matter is bad, and everything in the spirit world is good, eternity is the spirit world, heaven, and God, and everything that will happen after death is the spirit world, so we'll not be taking the physical into the spirit world - so why not indulge it as much as we can now and live it up? Because there's a day coming when we'll never be able to do it, and there'll be no consequences anyway because the world to come is spiritual!'. The common people followed that philosophy, and let me tell you this tonight as we begin this book: all the major problems in the book of Corinthians come from either one of those two positions. One position that says don't touch the things of the world, the body, material matter, because they're evil; or the other extreme that says: 'Well, we're in the spirit and we can just live it up, the matter's gonna be all burnt up one day, so let's sin and enjoy it!'.
Is it all coming together? Let me prove this to you. This living it up and indulging is called 'hedonism', the love of pleasure. If you go to - we don't have time to look at it, but just record this in your memory for future days - if you go to chapter 5, chapter 6, Paul talks about immorality, those who were indulging in sexual immorality for pleasure. If you go to chapters 8 through 10 he talks about men who were eating food that was sacrificed to idols, just indulging because it's not of the spirit, it's matter, it's evil, it's going to go in the end. In chapter 11 at the Lord's Table verses 17 to 34, people who were getting drunk at the Lord's Table because it didn't matter - it's matter! All of them indulging their bodily appetites, indulging them! Then if you go on in the book you find that it comes internally, where people are asserting their own rights and having little regard for others. You have the law of the weaker brother, they don't care about weaker Christians, they don't care that they will look at their example and fall into sin. If you go into chapter 6 it talks about lawsuits, they don't care that they're taking their brother or sister in Christ to the law in front of the world around them. If you go to chapter 11 about the headcovering, you find that the people are flaunting the social conventions of the day with respect to that, they don't care what the convention is! There's competition and chaos with regards to spiritual gifts, they want to do what they like, they want to indulge it all.
Then if you go to the opposite extreme, not the love of pleasure, but the shunning of pleasure - asceticism. You find it also in this book, the other faction in Corinthians, they were saying: 'You need to be celibate, that's God's ideal - don't get married! That's how you'll not fall into this sexual immorality' - chapter 7's all about Paul addressing that. Perhaps the greatest evidence of how they believed anything of the body was wrong is chapter 15, on the resurrection. They've got to such an extent of believing that the flesh is wrong that they don't even believe that there's any place for the body in the resurrection. Do you see it?
Now as I close tonight I want to tell you this as we start our studies: the relevance of this epistle is overwhelming to me, because tonight as we speak the church of Jesus Christ seems stronger than it has ever been only if your sole criteria is the value of its material assets and the number of bums on the pew, if you'll excuse the phrase. Someone has said of America: 'The church in the US is 3000 miles wide, and yet only half an inch deep'. So few of us in the West have experienced persecution, so few of us have experienced what it is to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ, and even you find in the church emerging today there is a hedonism. There is a desire, it's called the 'health and wealth gospel' - 'If you please God, if you have faith, name it and claim it, take it, whatever you want - millions of dollars, millions of pounds, and it will be yours'. It's all revolving around me, mine, self - indulging in materialism!
You get these leaders coming up in the church and all they have is management skills, and it's plaguing the church - models of church planning, how you can make your church effective from the business world's perspective. The church-growth manuals are full of all the principles of secular growth! Patrons! Yet what is lacking in the Western church today is an exhibition of compassion, of forgiveness in the personal relationship every day, the coal face of relevant faith - not a parody of Christianity, but real Christianity in shoe leather that weighs up to all the evangelical verbiage that we bandy about our mouths! What this world needs, and what Christ wants - this is the message of Corinthians - is a Christian that says they're Christian and acts like a Christian! Not an ascetic revolt that reacts against the immorality of the day and abstains from things, and defines themselves as a Christian by what they do not do - but what this world needs and what Christ wants is a Christian defined not by what he doesn't do, but what he is!
William Baird in his book 'A Biblical Approach to Urban Culture', listen to this, says: 'Paul's principles in Corinthians are a paradigm for how to minister among Urban churches and areas today' - and I believe he's right. For if people in this district get saved, the problems that we are dealing with in Corinthians are the problems that we're going to face - but let me tell you this: our church, and every church, stands in the west at a crossroads, and it must decide whether to institutionalise its Christianity or whether it is going to personalise its Christianity! What our community needs today is the personal touch... the personal touch.
Father, we thank Thee tonight for the wondrous gospel of grace that can reach to the very depths of humanity, and can raise to the very heights of heaven the one who has faith in Christ. But Lord, we know that that grace also brings with it sanctification, that is also by grace, but we have the responsibility to walk in the grace of God. Father, we, as the Corinthians, have been called to be saints, sanctified saints. Father, we pray that as we go out from this place, as we reside as a church in this area, that we will not institutionalise ourselves but that we will personalise the gospel and touch the men and women around us with the grace of God unto salvation, because we must remember: such were some of you. Help us Lord, we pray, for Christ's sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the first tape in his 1 Corinthians series, titled "The Reason It Was Written" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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