Four Ways to Promote Church Unity
Explore the Bible Series
June 6, 2010
Background Passage: I Corinthians 1:1-3:23
Lesson Passage: I Corinthians 1:10; 21-31; 3:9-10, 16-17
The mainland of Greece connects to the Peloponnesus by means of a narrow, four-mile isthmus. To the west stretches the Adriatic Sea and to the east, the Aegean. Astride this small strip of land was the ancient city of Corinth, a large trade and cultural center that served, in Paul’s day, as the capital of Achaia.
Archeological evidence indicates the great antiquity of Corinth. Raymond Brown pointed out that settlements existed, at the site of Corinth, for four thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Stone tools and weapons suggest settlement during the Stone Age (before 3000 B.C.), and artifacts of metal tools reveal occupation in the early Bronze Age (3000-2000 B.C.). About 1000 B.C. the city became a prominent trade center, situated between port cities, Lechaeum and Cenchreae.
Because of its strategic location, Corinth controlled much of the commerce in the northeastern Mediterranean region. Indeed, its seafaring people created colonies like Syracuse and Corcyra to enhance the profits made from maritime trade. Also, Corinth enjoyed military security afforded by an imposing acropolis rising almost two thousand feet above sea level. The acropolis served as a center for the worship of Aphrodite, and, according to some ancient sources, more than 1000 temple prostitutes serviced the lusts of pagan worshippers. For about one hundred years (350-250 B.C.) the city was the most important city in Greece; however, its affiliation with the Achaean League brought the city into conflict with the Romans. In 146 B.C. Consul Lucius Mummius sacked and razed Corinth, and, for a century, the city remained in ruins.
Julius Caesar rebuilt Corinth about forty years before the birth of Jesus, and quickly the city returned to prominence; indeed, the Romans improved travel and trade by creating a roller system to navigate ships and cargo across the isthmus, thus avoiding the dangerous, time-consuming voyage around the Peloponnesus. By Paul’s day the city was protected by an elaborate wall that fortified the environs. The citizenry came from all over the Mediterranean, a transient, urban, cosmopolitan population. Corinth enjoyed a reputation as a center of athletic competition. Every second year the Pan-Hellenic Games were held in Corinth, second in importance only to the Olympic Games, in Greek culture (See article on Corinth in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary—very helpful work).
Authorship: Though modern scholars debate the Pauline authorship of some works attributed to the Apostle Paul, liberals and conservatives alike affirm the traditional view that the apostle wrote this book (apparently aided by Sosthenes).
Date: Drs. Curtis Vaughan and Thomas Lea date this epistle in A.D. 53 or 54, and these fine scholars provided an excellent, brief summary of Paul’s interactions with the church at Corinth (See I Corinthians: A Founders Study Guide Commentary—excellent, accessible resource). Please carefully read Acts 18:1-18 for background information concerning chronology.
1. Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, fellow tent makers, and together they evangelized the city.
2. As was his custom, Paul began his work by preaching in the synagogue, each Sabbath, until driven into the household of a proselyte named Justus.
3. Several prominent Jews embraced the gospel, including one of the elders named Crispus, but, by and large, Paul’s converts were Gentiles.
4. The text claims that Paul received a divine vision that encouraged him to continue the work in Corinth, and he remained in the city for eighteen months.
5. The Jews, incited by Paul’s apparent success in making converts, brought the apostle before the Roman proconsul Gallio, governor of Achaia, but the proconsul refused to interfere with Jewish religious disputes. He did, however, allow the Jews to mistreat the leader of the synagogue, a man named Sosthenes.
6. Paul left Corinth and his companions, Aquila and Priscilla, accompanied the apostle to Ephesus. After a journey to Jerusalem, Paul returned to Ephesus, where he preached for three years. I Corinthians 5:9 seems to indicate that Paul wrote a letter from Ephesus, to the church in Corinth, a letter that has not been preserved. Later, the Corinthians wrote to Paul about serious problems that divided the congregation, a letter perhaps delivered to Paul by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (See 16:17). It seems plausible that Timothy, Paul’s close associate, brought additional distressing news to Paul, and, in time, the apostle wrote another letter, II Corinthians. Leon Morris, by the way, believes that Paul wrote four letters to Corinth (See The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians- another excellent resource).
- The “previous” letter mentioned in I Corinthians 5:9
- I Corinthians
- The severe letter mentioned in II Corinthians 2:4 and 7:8
- II Corinthians
Archeological evidence dates the rule of Gallio in 51 to 52. C.K. Barrett (cited in Vaughan and Lea) dated Paul’s return to Ephesus in the summer of A.D. 52. If we accept these dates, Paul must have written I Corinthians in 53 or 54. Morris dates the epistle in the mid-fifties. Certainly, this must be one of the earliest Christian writings, perhaps predated only by I Thessalonians. New Testament scholar Raymond Brown was surely correct when he commended the study of I Corinthians as an excellent introduction to the practical writings of the Apostle Paul (See Introduction to the New Testament).
I. Salutation of the Epistle (1:1-3)
A. The identity of the author of this epistle (v. 1a): Paul highlighted his call to apostleship from the outset of the letter. Dissensions troubled the church at Corinth, and one of the most disturbing divisions focused on the authenticity of Paul’s apostleship (See 1:10-15). This salutation established Paul’s claim to divine authority as an apostle to the Jesus Christ.
B. The assistance of Sosthenes (v. 1b): It seems likely that this is the same Sosthenes who served as ruler of the Corinthian synagogue. Obviously, the Corinthians knew this man; thus Paul mentioned him without introduction.
C. A brief description of the believers at Corinth (v. 2)
1. “the church of God”: We will soon discover the tendency of this congregation to yield allegiance to human leaders, but Paul established the Lord’s rightful place as master of this church. As an aside, please note that Paul did not use the word “church” as loosely as we do today. This term, in the New Testament, never described a denomination or a religious building (indeed, churches did not begin erecting buildings for two-and-a-half centuries). The church was, in Paul’s parlance, a “called-out”, identifiable people, set aside for the glory, worship, and service of Christ.
2. “sanctified in Christ Jesus”: Here, Paul introduced one of the central themes of his theology (I think the central theme), the believers union with Christ. Throughout Paul’s writings, he highlighted the mysterious bond Christ shares with his people. God consecrates his people, in Christ, and, in doing so, creates a new identity for and solidarity with the sanctified (See an excellent discussion in George Eldon Ladd’s, A Theology of the New Testament. pp. 481-483).
3. “called to be saints together with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”: Not only is the believe called to unity with Christ, but also to holiness along with all of God’s people. “Saints” does not describe a group of superlative Christians; rather, it denotes the holiness to which all of God’s people are called.
D. Apostolic blessing (v. 3): Paul used a similar blessing in most of his epistles, even, as here, when he harbored a great deal of frustration with his fellow Christians.
II. Thanksgiving for the Church in Corinth (1:4-9): Despite his disappointment in the Corinthian believers, Paul expressed genuine appreciation for his friends. Only in the Epistle to the Galatians did Paul fail to include a statement of thanksgiving. Here, Paul underscored five aspects of his appreciation for the believers in Corinth.
A. “for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus” (v. 4): God’s grace, in Paul’s theology, always comes through the mediation of Jesus.
B. “you were enriched in everything by him” (v. 5): Two grace-gifts arrested Paul’s attention: utterance (the ability to speak clearly and profoundly) and knowledge (a sound grasp of truth), skills highly prized by the Greeks.
C. “even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you” (v. 6): The apostle referred to his testimony to the person and work of Jesus, and commended the Corinthians for their conformation of the apostolic witness.
D. “so that you have come short in no gift” (v. 7): “Gift” may denote the grace freely given to these believers, but it may also refer to special gifts of the Holy Spirit. The words “eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” seem to point to God’s gift of grace, a gift that encouraged the Corinthians to eagerly await the return of the Lord.
E. “God is faithful” (v. 9): In some important ways the Corinthians had failed in their faithfulness to their calling, but their failures would not, in the end, thwart the purposes of God.
III. Paul’s Concerns about Divisions in the Corinthian Church (1:10-3:23—actually, this section on divisiveness continues through Chapter Four)
A. The facts concerning the Corinthian divisions (1:10-17)
1. Paul’s deep concern (v. 10): The apostle used a very strong verb “plead” to reflect his longing for unity among God’s people.
2. The source of Paul’s information (v. 11): We know little about Chloe, but members of her household spoke with Paul about the problems in Corinth. Note that the apostle refused to engage in closeted gossip; rather, he wrote straightforwardly of the source of his information.
3. The nature of the conflict (vv. 12-17): The church had divided into four identifiable factions. Some claimed to follow Paul, and others identified with Cephas (Peter), Apollos, or Christ. Perhaps some were drawn to Peter’s leadership because of his tendencies toward Jewish expressions of Christianity, and others may have been attracted by the eloquence of Apollos. I wonder if the followers of Christ were the “super spiritual” people who thought themselves superior to the other factions. Whatever the case, these factions risked displacing the Lord as the focus of their faith. Paul divested himself of any association with the factionalism that troubled this church.
B. Misunderstanding the Christian Message: Worldly Wisdom and Christian Foolishness (1:18-2:16): In this section the Apostle Paul contrasts two divergent worldviews. Note these contrasts. The wisdom of the world regards the message of the cross as foolishness (1:18); it demands signs and wisdom (1:22); it values excellency of speech (2:1); and it does not receive the things of God (2:14). The foolishness of the Christian message centers on the preaching of the cross (1:18); it is revealed through the foolishness of preaching (1:23-24; 2:1-9); it comes with power to the poor and lowly (1:26-31); and it is revealed through the work of the Holy Spirit (2:10-13).
C. The immaturity of the Corinthian believers (3:1-23)
1. Carnal and spiritual Christians (vv. 1-4): Paul used harsh language to refer to his audience. They were acting like lost people when they degenerated into man-following (note the emphasis on behavior in v. 3). I do not think Paul intended to create a new theological category of “carnal Christians” here. The Bible knows nothing of three classes of people: unbelievers, believers, and carnal Christians. Indeed, the thrust of this passage indicates that persistence in this worldly behavior would demonstrate the lostness of his readers.
2. The proper understanding of Christian ministry: two analogies (vv. 5-23)
(a). an agricultural analogy (vv. 5-9a): Paul and Apollos were not rival ministers; rather, they served complementary purposes in the work of the Kingdom. Paul planted, and Apollos watered the crop. Only God could bring a harvest, and each laborer will receive a just reward for his labors.
(b). an architectural analogy (vv. 9b-23): The last part of verse nine introduces a different analogy, the building of a temple. Paul laid the foundation for the edifice of the Corinthian faith, and others built on the apostle’s groundwork; the building belonged to God, not the builders.