Reading Apostle Paul 4
First Corinthians

Life in the Real World

First Corinthians

More than any of his other letters, Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthian church, which was considerably larger than the two letters that we have, reveals the real-life problems of a local church and, in Paul’s responses, also shows Paul’s self-understanding as an apostle.

The first letter leads us into the tangled interactions between Paul and the Corinthians, the development of tensions and even rival groups in the church, and Paul’s efforts to sort out what is involved by belonging to “the saints” while also living in “the world.”

The Corinthians cannot agree on much of anything, whether the topic is food or sex or who gets to speak in the assembly. Paul tries to get them thinking less about their rights than about living in right relationship according to what he terms “the mind of Christ.”

Paul’s letters to his beloved but fractured church in Corinth are our most important source for understanding the real life of early Christians. If we lost every other writing of the New Testament, and still had 1st Corinthians, we would know about what it meant to be a Christian in a major urban center of the Roman Empire in the first generation, than if we had all of the others and lost 1st Corinthians.

These letters also give us a deep understanding of Paul’s own self-understanding of his life as an apostle. This emerges especially in 1st Corinthians, but becomes a major theme in 2nd Corinthians, as we will see in our next lesson.

Any presentation on these writings must be selective, they are so rich and so dense. Today we will focus on four aspects of 1st Corinthians. 

Today’s Focus

1.The great complexity of the interactions between Paul and this church.

2.The context, and the outline of the letter, as a guide to how to read this difficult writing.

3.The difficulties arising from diversity, multiculturalism, and rivalries in the Corinthian community.

4.Looking at Paul’s way of trying to change the Corinthian’s way of thinking.

The Interactions with Corinth

Paul’s relationship with the churches he established in Corinth extended over a substantial period of time at the height of his Aegean ministry. That period when he was shuffling back and forth across the Aegean between Corinth and Ephesus. It involved frequent exchanges.

It is perhaps not well appreciated that what we call Paul’s Aegean ministry represents almost half of Paul’s total missionary time. Possibly as much as ~5 years of Paul’s missionary time was spent in two coastal towns on the Aegean - Corinth and Ephesus.

Let’s look at a map.

Here you see a 1st century map of the Aegean sea. Corinth in Greece was directly across the Aegean from Ephesus in Asia Minor. Paul established his initial churches in Corinth (~49 AD) on his 2nd missionary journey, staying 18 months.  On his third missionary journey he returned to Asia and resided in Ephesus for about 3.5 years.

Although the trip was not easy and was fraught with some danger, travel was possible by boat between Ephesus and Corinth. Or could be made overland. And we will learn from some of the readings in 1st and 2nd Corinthians that there were fairly frequent interchanges between the Christians in the two cities. 

After that initial 18 month stay with this community, Paul visited them at least twice more. We don’t know how successfully these visits were, in fact there are a few hints that those visits did no go well.  He mentions later in 2nd Corinthians that they were much more impressed with his letters, which were powerful, than with his personal presentations, which were rhetorically unimpressive. We also see that delegates– Timothy, Titus, and at least one unnamed brother were sent by Paul for various reasons to the church at Corinth. And we learn that the Corinthians sent delegates to meet with Paul, like the household servant of the wealthy woman Chloe to carry messages to Paul. So we have frequent personal exchanges. In addition we have the correspondence.

But by looking at the correspondence we do have carefully it is very clear that there was much more extensive written correspondence than the two letters we have.

In 1st Corinthians chapter 5 verse 9 Paul mentions a first letter that he wrote to them. He said “in my earlier letter I warned you to stay away from immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people in the world because then you would have to leave the world.” He meant immoral people in the community. So there was a first letter which we no longer have.

Then there is a letter that at least some of the Corinthians wrote to Paul asking for his advice on several subjects pertaining to diet, sexuality, and modes of worship, especially the use of spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues. We know about that letter because in 1st Corinthians 7:1 Paul says “Now concerning about the matters about which you wrote."

And after all of those exchanges we have 1st Corinthians. And all biblical scholars agree that this important letter is a single letter written by Paul.

Then, in 2nd Corinthians 2:4 Paul refers to a letter he wrote rebuking a member in the community in Corinth that he wrote in distress, anger, and “many tears”. And scholars assume that letter created a certain amount of consternation in that community. But does he mean 1st Corinthians, or is he referring to another letter. We are not certain.

Finally we have Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, which most scholars today believe are authentic (written by Paul) but most are not convinced  that the letter has literary integrity. They are convinced rather that it is an edited composite of as many as 5 separate letters (notes?) that Paul wrote to the community.

We will take up that difficult question next week when we take up 2nd Corinthians.

So – What Do We Have?

It is very clear to biblical scholars that with respect to the people of Corinth we have only a portion, and possibly a small portion of Paul’s literary exchanges. We have no information on Paul’s personal visits, except that there were several. We have no information on visits of Paul’s delegates. 

So we are aware of fragments of what was surely a two way conversation which was very extensive and must be very modest in our interpretations concerning historical events. Especially we have to bear in mind that in every instance we have only Paul’s reports and Paul’s perception of the situation. It becomes tricky to conclude we know an exact history of what the Corinthians were doing over time when much of what Paul was learning was also based on other people’s reports.

But by paying close attention to1st Corinthians we are able with good plausibility to reconstruct the series of events that led up to the writing of 1st Corinthians and doing this helps establish an outline of that letter.

The first thing we must note is that the Corinthian community as founded by Paul was a remarkably intelligent and gifted community. This was not a church made up of slacker's or of the tepid. They were full of enthusiasm.  Paul himself acknowledges in the beginning of his letter that they are deeply enriched in speech and knowledge. They lack no spiritual gifts.

1st Corinthians 1:4-9

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Although they enjoy powerful religious experiences, they cannot seem to agree on how to translate those experiences into moral behavior. What is the connection between religion and morality? If we have experienced powerful transformative experiences thru the resurrection and the Holy Spirit, what does that mean to how we should live our lives?

So – What Were the Problems?

Some of these problems have to do with the way in which the saints are supposed to relate to the everyday world in terms of sexual behavior, diet, and association with others. Others concern how worship was being carried out.

Some of the worship issues were that some of the community preferred to exhibit their spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, to more modest and rational forms of worship.

So because of these differences, that they clearly cannot work out among themselves, some in the community suggest that they should turn to Paul, their founder, for advice. 

That suggestion apparently sets off even deeper divisions, having to do with who is really fit to teach us, since we are so smart and gifted.

In 1st Corinthians 1:11-13 Paul then begins to outline this issue. He says “Chole’s people have reported to me that there are divisions among you. Some say I belong to Paul, others saying I belong to Peter, I belong to Apollos, and another group that says I belong to Christ?”

So we have a situation here in which the community is so fractured they cannot even decide who they trust to teach them in the correct way. Is it there founder Paul, or Apollos, who is admittedly (by Paul) more rhetorically gifted than Paul, or Peter, an an original apostle who witnessed the resurrection. Or the smug group sitting on the side who says we are not interested in that debate because we have a direct pipeline to Jesus. We are the Christ party!

And the Plot Thickens.

In the meantime, members of the Chloe party, also report that other things have gone from bad to worse. Since this initial division we now have people acting out in inappropriate ways.  There is a member in the community who is living with his mother-in-law in what is apparently an incestuous relationship. But still wants to be part of the table fellowship. We have other people who either are or are promising to go have sex with prostitutes in order to make a point about their freedom in Christ. And worst of all, in Paul’s view, they are trying to settle moral issues in pagan civil courts.

Anyone today who has idyllic views of the origins of Christianity and is seduced by the idyllic position of the early Christians as described in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles as being perfectly and wonderfully united in spirit, sharing all of their possessions, and enjoying an idyllic existence simply need to read 1st Corinthians to understand how strong personalities in a gifted and apparently highly intelligent community can unite in a heady mixture of divisiveness and disunity.

Paul’s Challenge

The Outline of 1st Corinthians corresponds to Paul’s rhetorical challenge. They want Paul to tell them who is right. Paul’s challenge is to try to get them to imagine what it means to be righteous. That is to be in a right relationship with each other. And do he writes them what is in effect a real letter, but rhetorically it is described by rhetoricians as a perceptive discourse on harmony in a community.

So even as he is addressing their specific questions, he is trying to raise them to a higher level of imagination; the point for Paul is not who is right, but how they need to change their thinking.

In order to do that Paul must first establish his credentials to teach them. And this occupies parts of Chapters 1-4 of 1st Corinthians.

Paul’s Response

Paul begins by reminding them that they are not the Corinthian community, they are not Paul’s community, not Peter’s, not Apollos’ community. This is not a Greco/Roman club. They are God’s church.  God called then into existence. And he asks them – “What is it that you need that you have not received? Everything that you have is gift. Secondly he reminds them that the shape of this gift did not come because they were the best and the brightest. Not many of you were well born, not many of you were powerful. Many of you came from the least likely folks to be called. And furthermore you were called by a message concerning a crucified messiah. Somebody who was executed as a criminal.

Paul hits them in 1st Corinthians 1:18-31 this astonishingly powerful argument as to why they may be very smart and gifted now but it all came from God.

And in a memorable metaphor Paul tells them that he and Apollos are not rivals but colleagues—he (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.

He then reminds them that each member has a valid function and that cooperation is the key to the welfare of the community.

And finally, to further strengthen his credentials with them with respect to who they should listen to he reminds them that he is their founder – and therefore their father. In the highly structured household system of patronage in that time and place it was well understood  that in the Roman household the father (patron) was the teacher of the family.

He then engages in social engineering and rapid-fire corrections of the most egregious abuses reported to him (chs. 5–6).

Next, he considers the questions in their letter, taking up in turn the issues of marriage and virginity (7), eating practices (8–10), and problems in worship (11–14).

Note: we do not have the letter that Paul is addressing so we can only infer what that letter said. But in chapter 7 Paul discusses questions of whether or not to marry. He basically  that to avoid sexual immorality each man should have a wife and each wife a husband. But he also said that it was acceptable to remain unmarried.

Regarding eating practices it was apparently questions about whether they were allowed to eat meat that had been sacrificed to other gods. As a reminder Corinth was a major city (2nd largest in the Empire behind Rome). And it had a diverse complex pagan religious culture. So the small Christian church was surrounded by pagan temples carrying out animal sacrifices. Paul gave a rather subtle argument that there was only one God so this should not be an issue. But he cautioned that if some members of the community did feel compromised by eating such sacrificial meat then others should probably not eat it in their presence. He even said that when he visited he would not eat such sacrificed meat for that reason.

And finally the “problems” in worship seemed to be questions about what spiritual gifts could be used in worship – apparently some of the members wanted to speak in tongues as part of the worship, and many of the others were against that because they had not received that gift and had no idea what was being said. Paul gave an extensive analysis of that issue, but again came down on his consistent notion that the community was of utmost importance, so even if you had a gift of "tongues", if no one else in the assembly understood what you were saying, you were not edifying the people, only yourself. So, in a rather subtle way, he said don't do it.

After giving all of these responses Paul finished Chapter 12 with the verse that introduces Chapter 13: "And now I will show you a more excellent way"

And this is one of Paul's most quoted rifts - the gift of love.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-8  A More Excellent Way

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

My interpretation:

This was not a rift just to wax poetic on love. Paul is rhetorically revisiting all of the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians are so proud of  (tongues, prophetic powers, deep understanding, knowledge, and faith. And reminding them that the greatest spiritual gift from God is Love - their love of each other and God. And with that gift they can address all of their problems.

Paul's Final Argument

Paul then provides a deep and dense theological argument concerning the resurrection (ch. 15). Here, Paul is addressing some of the leaders who had concluded that maybe there would be no resurrection for them, but only for Jesus. Paul absolutely refutes that.

Finally, he turns to his personal concern, the plans for his collection of money for the Jerusalem church (ch. 16). The Jerusalem church (predominately Jewish Christians) was apparently  on very hard times and Paul may have viewed that helping them with money from these predominately gentile Christian churches might help relationships between Jewish and gentile Christians.

And the letter (1st Corinthians) ends with the normal final messages and greetings from the churches of Asia Minor.

Next  Week

2nd Corinthians

See You Next Week!

Reading Apostle Paul 4                First Corinthians

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