The state of California is known for sunshine, surfing, and Beach Boys music, which made us “wish they all could be California girls.” Today, left-wing politics and loose living also characterize the Golden State. For example, Showtime, the premium television network, captured the modern California spirit in a comedy-drama called Californication, which lasted for seven self-indulgent seasons.
Two thousand years ago, a significant Greek city called Corinth had a similar immoral reputation. Ancient Corinth offered something for every known sinful desire, making the word Korinthiazomai (“to be like a Corinthian”) synonymous with notorious evil, debauchery, and prostitution.[i] However, the pure gospel of Jesus Christ was made for a city like Corinth. Thus, the apostle Paul and others planted a church in Corinth, but they found it difficult to keep Corinth out of the church. Sound familiar? What part of your life looks more like Corinth and California than Christ?
Located on a narrow strip of land between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, Corinth was a port city that drew people from various places around the world. Some stayed for a short time to enjoy the hedonistic vibe, while as many as seven hundred thousand others made Corinth their home. Corinthians enjoyed the theater, the Isthmus Games (one of the Panhellenic Games and a precursor to the Olympics), and the great temple of Aphrodite with one thousand prostitutes to aid worshippers.
The Apostle Paul came to Corinth on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-17). There, he met Aquila and Priscilla, an Italian couple who escaped the persecution of Claudius, and made tents with them to support his living. Paul also preached the gospel in the synagogue until abusive opposition from the Jews forced him to move to the “house of Titius Justus, a worshipper of God” (18:7). “From now on,” Paul said, “I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6). After a vision from the Lord encouraging him to “keep on speaking,” Paul remained in Corinth for another eighteen months.
Paul wrote three letters to the Corinthians, of which the first is lost (5:9).[ii] In the Bible, First Corinthians is a second letter Paul wrote from Ephesus during his third missionary journey in response to disturbing news he heard about the church and their many questions about life in the body of Christ. First Corinthians unfolds as follows: Body life divisions (1-4), body life disorder (4-5), and body life discussions about a variety of topics (7-16). Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2).
Body Life Divisions
Paul received some bad news from Chloe's people that factions within the church were quarreling (1:11). People had divided into camps that followed various leaders—namely, Paul, Apollos, and Peter. Before we get into the debauchery in the Corinthian church, divisions abound. Such divisions are the sign of an immature church. Perhaps some followed Paul because he founded the church. Others might have been drawn to the eloquence of Apollos. Loyalists to Judaism probably leaned toward Peter, also called Cephas. Some said, “I follow Christ,” with their spiritual noses in the air.
It should never be a spiritual leader’s goal to do anything more than serve God and His people faithfully. Paul never suggests that he or his ministry colleagues did anything intentionally to attract a following or compete for the affections of the Corinthians. On the contrary, Paul says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name” (1:14-15). On the contrary, they humbly served the church.
It does not take long for Paul to put the cross of Jesus Christ at the center of his letter. The cross of Christ would be emptied of its power (1:17) if Paul, Apollos, or Peter had accepted the celebrity status given to them by the Corinthians, which Paul found to be completely unacceptable.
Paul declares, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Contextually, Paul leaves us with the distinct impression that the best way to unite the body of Christ is to fix our eyes on His cross. The apostle goes on to show how God put His wisdom on display by choosing “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1:27). He silences human boasting by choosing “what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not” (1:28). Then, he points the divided church to Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30). When the church goes low, the apostle to the gentiles goes high.
Lest the Corinthians devolve into a preaching contest between Paul, Apollos, Peter, and some sophisticated Greek elocutionists, Paul sets the record straight. “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2). Paul’s point? As simple as it sounded to the worldly-wise Greeks, the crucified Christ is enough.
Unlike the Greeks, Paul did not rely on human wisdom to persuade the Corinthians. Instead, he says, “My speech and my message were … in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5). Paul’s discussion about the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God” (2:10), sets up some of the most direct words he writes to the Corinthians, telling them they are “of the flesh, as infants in Christ (3:1). He differentiates between the spiritual, natural, and carnal (fleshy) person (2:14-3:4). Paul views himself and his ministry colleagues as servants, not celebrities, builders, not the foundation, and stewards of the mysteries of God, not owners (3:5-4:7).
Furthermore, Paul says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (4:10). He urges the cosmopolitan Corinthians to “be imitators of me” (4:18). Later, he says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (11:1 NIV).
Body Life Disorder
Chapter 5 begins with a shocking statement about an immoral relationship in the Corinthian church. Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among the pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (5:1). Rewind that verse and reread it. Let it sink into your soul. It is appalling enough when professing Christians fall into sexual immorality, but some wickedness leaves even the unbelieving world aghast.
Before we are too hard on the Corinthian church, let’s understand from where they came. Unlike the Jerusalem church that had a short walk from Judaism to Christianity, the Corinthian believers came out of paganism and Greek mythology. They also lived in unholy Corinth, not Jerusalem, the holy city. Frankly, it was harder to follow Christ in Corinth, though not impossible, which is why Paul addressed the immoral relationship.
Paul instructs the Corinthians to exercise church discipline by expelling the sinful couple from the local body of believers, saying, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). In other words, by not allowing the sinful man access to the sweet fellowship of the church, he is left alone to deal with the devil. Paul chastises the Corinthians for their boasting and then highlights the seriousness of the matter by saying, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (5:6-8).
In chapter 6, Paul uses his apostolic authority to address another disorder in the church (6:1-8). Apparently, believers in Christ were filing lawsuits against their own brothers and sisters in the Lord. How dare you do this, Paul bellows. Again, as the church goes low, the apostle goes high. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” (6:2-3). Believers should arbitrate their conflicts within the Christian community.
Paul ends chapter 6 by returning to the subject of sexual immorality (6:9-20), encouraging them to flee from it because “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (6:13). The apostle elevates the Corinthians’ understanding of their bodies by asking, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).
Body Life Discussions
In chapters 7-16, Paul exercises his apostolic authority by answering a series of difficult questions raised by the Corinthians. First, he addresses issues relating to marriage, divorce, remarriage, singleness, and celibacy (7:1-40). He encourages the Corinthians to live as God called them.
In chapters 8-11:1, Paul addresses how Christians should exercise their liberty in Christ. For example, should Christians eat meat in the marketplace that was previously offered to a pagan god in the temple? Paul argues that meat is meat, whether it was offered in a pagan worship service or not. However, love limits our liberty.[iii] Believers should always consider the weaker brother or sister in Christ who might stumble over the free exercise of one’s liberty (see also, Romans 14). Paul’s motivation for surrendering his rights is clear when he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (9:22). He also urges us to consider the glory of God, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31).[iv]
Paul transitions to the subject of public worship in 11:2-14:40, while inserting a soaring chapter on love that stands alone as the greatest literary masterpiece ever written on the subject (13:1-13). Love is the Christian ethic that helped the Corinthian believers navigate their way through the thorny issues that threatened to divide them, specifically relating to the role of women in the church (11:2-26), practicing the Lord’s Supper (11:17-33), spiritual gifts (12:1-31), and speaking in tongues (14:1-40).
Of course, nothing should unite believers more than the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is why Paul returns to the subject in chapter 15, where he begins with these profound words,
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. 15:1-3
The gospel is of “first importance.” In other words, the other matters Paul addressed in his letter are important but secondary, and they should not divide the church. After stating the facts of the gospel, Paul mentions the many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Then, like a capable defense attorney, he proceeds to defend the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, making it the lynchpin of Christianity. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (15:13-14).
In his great discourse on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul answers the following questions: Will the dead rise? (15:12-34), how will the dead rise? (15:35-49), and when will the dead rise? (15:50-56). Considering the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, Paul declares victory over death through the Lord Jesus Christ and urges the following practical application, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58).
Paul concludes his first letter to the Corinthians by addressing questions about their financial stewardship. He urges them to give regularly and systematically, preparing their offering “upon the first day of the week” (16:1-4). Then, he gets personal by communicating his travel plans (16:5-11) and mentioning the names of six people within some final instructions and greetings (16:12-24).
Despite their many problems and the challenges of their ministry context, Paul still refers to the Corinthian believers as “saints” and includes them among “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). He urges them to live up to their high and holy calling, so they look more like Christ than Corinth, and so we look more like Christ than California.
[i] The Open Bible, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, p. ?
[ii] An alternative view says that Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians: (1) the previously letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9, (2) the Bible’s First Corinthians, (3) a tearful letter mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, and (4) the Bible’s Second Corinthians. The three-letter view assumes the anguished letter to which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4 is First Corinthians, and the sinner to forgive in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 is the immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5, who has since repented.
[iii] One of my seminary professors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, added, “Leadership limits our liberty. Others can but leaders can’t.”
[iv] We should also consider the interplay between Christian liberty, licentious living, and legalism.