Week 49: December 3-9
Topic: 1 & 2 Corinthians
The town of Corinth is located on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece. Corinth was one of the larger towns during this time with an estimated population near 500,000 combining free people and people in slavery. It was a highly influential city during the time the first century A.D. It served as a main connection point between the east and west of Greece also functioning as a chief seaport. Corinth was a place of power as the seat of government for its province and wealth as a center of trade and travel. The religious environment was filled with temples to some of the different Greek gods, with Aphrodite, Apollo, and Asclepius being the primary sources of worship for the people in Corinth. The town was known for its sexual immorality especially relating to the worship of Aphrodite with over 1000 temple prostitutes. The church in Corinth was planted by Paul during his missionary journeys. These two letters are following up on teaching and sending encouragement and rebuke to the people for some of the challenges and opportunities that they faced.
Paul spends a good amount of the first letter dealing with some major questions and problems that had started to occur after he planted the church. One of the first challenges is the teacher that the church is holding allegiance towards. As is the case in any church today, there were a number of different leaders that came to teach and encourage. The challenge for the church is they began to take sides on which teacher was the best. They were more interested in the words and possibly person of the teacher than the content which was simply to point them to the cross and Jesus risen from the dead. Paul moves from this controversy to taking on a confrontation with one of the church members who was caught up in the lifestyle of the culture and world they lived. Instead of reaching out to the culture this brother had embraced it and was causing division and turmoil within the church as a result. Paul wants to encourage the Corinthian people in their faith to actually live out what they had been taught. They were struggling taking their head knowledge and putting into action. There is a lot of talk about sexual immorality and then also marriage. The reason that Paul takes so much space of this letter for this topic relates back to the place of Corinth. They were one of the major centers of worship for Aphrodite (the goddess of love) whose worship involved a lot of these challenges. Paul is encouraging the Christians to live counter-culturally here to show the grace of God.
The next major topic that Paul encourages the Christians with is that of the Lord’s Supper. Paul is again needing to go back and do some basic instruction on what the Lord’s Supper is and the profound meaning that it brings into the Christian life. One of the challenges the people faced was diversity in the income levels of the members of the church. So the folks that were well off would use the time of the Lord’s Supper as an occasion to eat and drink to excess while the people that were struggling didn’t have an opportunity to come to the table while there was still the body and blood of the Lord available. Chapters 10 and 11 give us some of the more poignant instructions on how to take communion. This is usually something that I have gone over with my confirmation students over the years. They encourage us to truly examine ourselves before we come to the table. Make sure that we are at peace with each other and God before partaking in communion. Paul continues to give the people the meat and potatoes of faith as he discusses spiritual gifts encouraging the people to understand that each person in the church is a wonderful and needed addition that brings a slightly different set of gifts and skills to the table. Each of those gifts are highly valued and favored. They each have different avenues where they are used to their fullest. The challenges for us today from these chapters are related to how we see the body of Christ. We don’t have to worry about feasting in excess at the Lord’s Supper, but we do need to think about how we take care of the people that God places into our lives. Each of us has been given different gifts and blessings to use to build the kingdom. The grace of God comes in as we utilize and serve within the gifting that God gives us to help build the kingdom.
A couple of the chapters of the first letter to Corinth are some of my favorite chapters in the Bible. The first is chapter 13 which I read at nearly every wedding that I have the honor to be present for the couple. They are the words of Paul about love which are intended for all of us in and outside of the context of marriage. Love teaches us how to relate to the people God places around us on a daily basis. When we read through these words, it is a time to do a check-up on all our relationships, It is the encouragement to see the successes we’ve enjoyed and see the places where we are still learning to love more fully as God loves us. Chapter 15 is another one of my favorites as it talks about the resurrection and what it means for us both daily and after death. This is a section that I tend to read during funerals and also when folks are nearing the end of their earthly journey. Paul writes, “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (15:53) Paul reminds us here that we are made for more than this life. We are made for eternity. We are made to spend eternity with God. That is what we continue to live for as we walk through our journey of faith.
Paul continues his teaching and warning the people of Corinth in his second letter about the teachers that may come trying to bring false teaching to the people.
My favorite two sections of this second letter are Chapter 4 and 5 where Paul describes the Christian life using some great metaphors. The first is a jar of clay which lent itself nicely to a Christian band name during the 1990s and early 2000s. The body is likened to a jar of clay that can be “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (4:8-10) I think especially about the folks that are directly facing persecution around the world when I read these words today. This was something that Paul and his companions faced on a regular basis during their time. I believe the two images that strike me the most as an American Christian today are the first two: hard pressed and perplexed. We have the challenges of watching the world around us change at a furiously fast pace. Many of the things that we certainties when we were kids or even maybe adults have completely changed to not have the same value to the culture and world. These changes can be perplexing, but they should not cause us to go into despair. Instead they drive us to continue to reach out with the Gospel into the time and culture that we have been given. Chapter 5 then switches to the image of a tent to talk about our earthly body. I believe this to be a great image as it reminds us that this is a temporary time. Tents are not made to stand for a person’s lifetime. Instead they are something for a few days or weeks or possibly a month or two depending on what the setting may be. One of the shows that I watched growing up was MASH. One of the shows I remember distinctly dealt with concrete. The doctors wanted to have concrete floors for their operating and recovery areas. However the army didn’t exactly see things the same way. The doctors were concerned about all of the infections and other problems that having a dirt floor could bring. The army pointed to the first initial (word) Mobile and refused this upgrade as the tents and entire unit had to be capable of moving at any time. One of the challenges that I think comes into our Christian life is that we get comfortable with the blessings that God gives to us. We start to see our tent like the doctors as a more permanent house. However, Paul reminds us that the next home we have will be our eternal home where we will be with the Lord. It points us towards the book of Revelation and the beauty that we see in Heaven. A great verse to memorize in this chapter is 5:7, “We live by faith, not by sight.” A great reminder as we head towards Christmas to see the baby born in Bethlehem, who truly is God Himself among us, Immanuel.