Introduction to I Corinthians
A modern tourist visiting the ruins of Ancient Corinth will find two inscriptions of particular interest to us this morning. A monument in the ancient marketplace, or “agora,” bears this inscription: “Gnaeus Babbius Philinus had this monument erected at his own expense, and he approved it in his official capacity of duovir,” (or what we would call a chief magistrate).
Babbius held an important political and social position in Corinth. This man had risen through the ranks of the Corinthian social structure to hold an influential title.
But what should catch your eye is the blatant self-promotion in erecting a monument to himself. It was expected that those who attained a position of status should seek to make it publicly known. It was not embarrassing to do so.
If today you walk north from that monument, you will come to an area paved with limestone, and on the limestone you can read the inscription, “Erastus, in return for his adileship, laid at his own expense.” Here again another man of status making his wealth and importance known to all. All should see that he donated this street at his own expense.
With these inscriptions, and these are only two of many, you are getting a feel for the culture of the city Paul wrote this epistle to. Corinth was a city obsessed with achieving class, status and value in the eyes of others.
In 44 B.C Julius Caesar restored the city of Corinth, which had lain in ruins from Roman conquest a century earlier. Corinth was ideally located in the center of Greece. Because it was on the isthmus that separated east from West, it quickly became a major trade route.
Corinth experienced a great influx of people in the first century, and the free market flourished there with abundant goods and services. If you wanted to work your way up the economic and social ladder, Corinth was the place to do it.
The Apostle Paul chose to plant a church in Corinth, and he remained there a year and a half to pastor that church. After that Paul moved on to Ephesus, where he also remained for quite some time.
Paul wrote I Corinthians after receiving correspondence from some members of the church, and after a few of the members sailed over to Ephesus and updated Paul as to the church’s condition. In I Cor. 5:9 Paul refers to another letter of instruction he had previously sent to the church. In God’s providence we do not have that letter.
In I Corinthians, Paul addresses at least eleven different issues; problems in the church that were either doctrinal or behavioral. On the surface all these issues seem somewhat disjointed and unrelated. But as you get to know the epistle, you will see an underlying theme to these problems, whether theological or behavioral.
Though the Corinthians had been made new in Christ, much of the old still clung to them. The Christians in Corinth were still holding to their old value system. The citizens of Corinth were still obsessively concerned with reputation, and status, and importance.
They were willing to engage in shameless self-promotion to gain influence and statue. The Corinthian church simply baptized this value system by bringing it into the church.
So for example, while in the city the wealthy held a higher status, in the church those with the gift of tongues were considered of higher status. Since the Corinthians considered tongues the most important gift, they all wanted to speak in tongues; same values, new issues.
Another example; in the wealthy Roman houses there were two dining areas, the triclinium and atrium. The more honored guests who held higher status in the community ate in the triclinium; the less honored in the atrium.
Sure enough, what do we have in I Cor 11…a problem concerning the Lord’s Supper and fellowship meals. Some in the church would be invited into the triclinium, and the poorer would be in the atrium. The rich would begin to eat before the poor could even attend. The wealthy though this was perfectly normal. They brought their culture into the church.
There was an argument as to who was the most spiritual. Some in the church were teaching that in this life you can attain to a higher spiritual plane, one where what you did with your body was unimportant, thus the discourse on sexual matters in I Cor 6.
Now this clinging to their old values produced another conflict, and here we will find the most serious conflict throughout the book.
While it is true there was some infighting amongst the people, the majority of the Christians there shared one common problem. They had a growing conflict with the Apostle Paul.
The relationship between the church and the Apostle had become strained. By the writing of second Corinthians the relationship had deteriorated to the breaking point. But the evidence of that strained relationship is seen throughout this first epistle also.
The Christians of Corinth were beginning to question Paul’s authority, and his legitimacy as an Apostle. Even after bringing them the gospel and laboring among them, they still were suspicious whether Paul was a true apostle.
You see up in v. 3 of chapter 4 that the Corinthians were standing in judgment over him. Paul spends the rest of the chapter defending his own apostleship.
So what was the big issue they had against Paul? What was it about Paul that so bothered the Corinthians, to cause them to doubt his authority?
Well, the Apostle Paul in his teaching and in his behavior went against their whole value system. As an Apostle, Paul would have been expected to follow certain customs reserved for important teachers.
In the ancient world a teacher like Paul was called a rhetorician. Respected rhetoricians received high honor in the Roman world. A professional rhetorician was schooled in rhetoric; he was a very powerful and eloquent speaker. The rhetorician would travel from city to city and attach himself to a wealthy patron. That patron would support the teacher financially, and the teacher would live in the patron’s house. The teacher was then expected to treat the patron more favorably than others.
A rhetorician excelled in what we would call spin. Yes, spin is not a new phenomenon. Probably the most famous rhetorician in the Roman world was a man named Cicero. Cicero was such an eloquent and powerful speaker, no matter which side he argued; by the time he was finished you were on his side. Rhetoricians were experts at using the cleverest, flowery and most persuasive language to win converts to their cause. The people held great honor for their eloquent teachers and philosophers.
But then the Apostle Paul comes to town; a teacher known throughout the eastern world. A teacher sent from God. But when Paul came to Corinth, he did not want to be identified as a professional rhetorician. Paul refused to be supported by only the wealthy in the church.
So Paul took a job working with his hands. Yes, that dreaded name, manual labor. In a culture where manual labor was considered on the low end of status, the Apostle took a job making tents. This did not please the Corinthians. Paul began to lose credibility in their eyes.
Added to this was his preaching. It wasn’t full of those flowery words and persuasive rhetoric that would have been expected. It was embarrassingly simple. Paul wrote in I Cor 1:17, Christ sent me to preach the gospel, but not with words of eloquent wisdom, less the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Again in chapter 2 he writes, When I came to you brothers, I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Paul was fully aware why his preaching was being criticized. Paul’s preaching was offensive even to the church because it was so simple, and the message was always the cross.
And so Paul preached in weakness, and he lived in weakness. He lowered himself in man’s eyes in both his words and his life.
Paul defends his apostleship in our passage in chapter 4. Paul writes in v. 10 that we are weak, v 12; we do work with our own hands. By the way, we will see later that when Paul uses the word “we” here he is referring primarily to himself. Notice he easily the “we” turns to “I.” In v. 13 Paul is not ashamed to say that he has become as the scum of the earth.
You see the issue then? The Corinthians were embarrassed of their Apostle. Paul, it wouldn’t hurt to act a little more respectfully.
To make matters worse, not only does the Apostle refuse to deny his low status in the eyes of the world, he calls upon the church to be like him. After Paul writes that he has become like the scum of the earth, he calls on the church to imitate him. Now he’s going too far!
Paul writes in v. 16 that the Corinthians were to imitate him. In v. 17 we see that Paul sent Timothy to Corinth to remind them of his ways in Christ.
Paul is not only a pastor. He is a chosen apostle. The situation was much more serious than a problem with a pastor. To reject Paul was to reject Christ. To be ashamed of Paul was to be ashamed of Christ.
You see there is a unique identity between Paul and Christ that is unique in the history of salvation. Paul uniquely represents Christ to the Gentiles.
We read from Isaiah 42 that the Father promised to send the Son to the Gentiles to open their blind eyes. But Jesus never physically went to the Gentile nations, did He?
But when the risen Christ commissions Paul on the road to Damascus, Christ borrows language from Isaiah 42. He takes language that refers to himself and applies it to Paul. The Father would send the Son to the Gentiles to open their blind eyes; Christ sends Paul to the Gentiles to open their blind eyes.
Paul in a most intimate sense would represent Christ, not only with his inspired message, but also in his lifestyle. Paul’s message and his lifestyle were so closely related that to accept one you must accept the other.
Did you notice the language at the end of the chapter 4? In v. 19, the Apostle writes, I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but of their power. And v. 21; Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
Does not Paul’s coming ring a bell to you? Paul’s coming parallels Christ’s coming. Christ’s chosen representative is coming first. Will he come in judgment, or in love and gentleness? If Paul must come with a rod, Christ will come with a rod. How they treat Paul was how they treat Christ.
This is why without embarrassment, or pride, Paul can say, be imitators of me. This is not something we can say to others. I would never say to you, “imitate me.” I would only tell you to be like Christ. But Paul is so closely identified with Christ that to be like Paul is to be like Christ.
So you see what is at stake as Paul writes this epistle. To look down on Paul’s lowliness is to look down on Christ. Paul’s problem is not an inflated ego; that he wants to be loved by all. He knows what is at stake if the Corinthians reject him as their Apostle.
So what is Paul’s solution to this worldly value system the Corinthians had brought into the church? Well, first and foremost, Paul preaches the cross. The cross brings us all down to the same level, does it not? When Christ is preached, where is there room for man’s pride?
But Paul not only preaches the cross as the way of salvation from sin, he preaches the cross as a way of life. Please get this. Paul preached the cross not only as the way of salvation, but as the way of Christian living!
For Paul the coming of Christ brought with it a new value system, a system that has as its ethic the cross. It is a system at odds with the wisdom of this world that is passing away. In this new system the first is last, the other is more important than self. In this new value system we do not seek influence or power over others, nor do we look to this life to gain importance and status. Now we find our value in Christ, and our hope in the age to come.
This is what the Corinthians were struggling with. You see, Paul knew it wasn’t really him they were struggling with, it was Christ. It was the gospel.
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians was to preach the cross, not only as a way of salvation, but as a way of life. Christ lowered himself for us that we may become children of God. Now that we are children of God we are called to be like Christ; to lower ourselves in hope of the glory to come. That is the glory and status we are to be concerned about.
This cross-bearing ethic will govern what the Apostle writes about wisdom in chapter 1, about preaching in chapter 2, about his own apostleship in chapter 4, about bodily consecration in chapter 6, about marriage in chapter 7, about judging your brother in chapters 8&9, about despising your brother as you take the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, and about exalting yourselves over who has the most important spiritual gift in chapters 12-14.
Finally, as we walk through this book, the understanding of the unique identity between Christ and the Apostle Paul will give you better insight into the living relationship that you have with Jesus Christ. Paul represents Christ. As Paul’s heart is revealed in his passion for the church, Christ’s heart is reveled in His passion for us.
Christ is actively shepherding you from heaven. As your Shepherd He feels the full range of emotions we see in Paul. Paul encourages whenever he can. Paul is extremely patient. Paul sometimes gets angry. Paul can be rather sharp when he has to be. Paul can be hurt. He warns the people who refuse to listen. And Paul clearly shows great interest in our attitudes and conduct towards one another.
As you enter into Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians you enter more fully into Christ’s relationship with you. He saved you to have this intimate relationship with you from heaven. As you respond to Paul’s love, his commands, his rebuke, his passion, you respond to Christ.
May this book be a great encouragement to your faith, and to your relationship with your risen Shepherd.