The Gospel in a Troubled City

Studies in First Corinthians

by Bob Burridge ©2016

Lesson 1: 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 (ESV)

The Gospel in a Troubled City

The Apostle Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians are quite fascinating. They deal with some very practical issues which are still struggles for Christians today.

  • There were disagreements among the believers that were troubling the church.
  • They faced serious moral and ethical problems.
  • Their marriages and homes were troubled.
  • They were divided about daily practices as to what was right and wrong.
  • They were confused about how they should worship.
  • There were some who abused spiritual gifts.
    This is the primary book used by charismatics to defend speaking in tongues.
  • They were confused about the resurrection and their hopes for departed loved ones.
  • Other matters are mentioned such as the collections in the church, and Paul’s future plans.

He begins his first letter with one of his typical greetings:

1. Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It helps to know a little about the city
in which the Christians receiving this letter lived.

The city of Corinth was a very important economic center.
It was situated on a narrow isthmus connecting Northern Greece with the Southern Pelopennese. All the land-trade that moved North and South had to pass through their city. It was also an important sea-trade port joining the East and West markets. On the West side ships went to Rome, and other places to the West. On the East side ships sailed toward the Aegean Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Though destroyed in a war with Rome in 146 BC, Corinth was rebuilt in 46 BC when Julius Caesar established it as a Roman colony. He named it Laus Iulia Corinthus (Corinth, the praise of Julius). In 27 BC it was made the capitol of the Roman province of Achaia. It quickly regained its economic and political importance, but this time as a Roman city.

Religiously it was a place of great variety.
The Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods were honored, and many lesser deities as well. It also had a well known immoral reputation. Even the pagan Romans saw it as a place that was extreme in its sexual license. Many ancient Greek terms for immorality were based on the name of the city. The Greek word “Corinthiazo” (κορινθιαζω) was a verb “to corinthianize” meaning to have sex outside of marriage. Prostitutes were often called “Corinthian girls” or “Corinthian companions”.

The temple of Aphrodite on the Corinthian acropolis sanctioned prostitution as a religious rite. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians show that sexual liberty continued to be a problem, even among believers who found it hard to abandon the cultural standards surrounding them .

Paul visited Corinth for the first time on his 2nd missionary journey. (Acts 18)

He came there alone. It was where he met Aquila and his wife Priscilla.
They were Jewish believers who had been expelled from Rome. They were believers in God’s Covenant, expecting the coming of Messiah. They may have even believed in Jesus as the Christ before they were expelled.

They were also tent-makers, workers in a special heavy-duty and highly valued cloth. The cloth “cilicium” was a rough material made of goat’s hair. It was used to make tents, sails, garments, curtains and awnings. Tents made of it were used by the Roman armies. Their skill made it easy for them to travel and to get work easily anywhere they went. This couple provided the apostle a place to stay in their home while he was there. They became close friends with Paul who was also a skilled tent-maker. It also indicates that he worked with them as business partners.

While there Paul went to the synagogues teaching about Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Some of the Jews were eager to hear his message and became believers in Jesus Christ. But others were angered by his message and caused problems for him.

When Silas and Timothy joined him in Corinth, serious disputes broke out. Paul had to move his teaching out of the Synagogue and into the private home of Justus. He is called a worshiper of God in Acts 18:7.

In time Crispus, the leader of the synagogue believed Paul’s message about Jesus. He and his entire family left the old group and were baptized as Christians. He is mentioned later in this first chapter of 1 Corinthians.

Paul’s success angered some of the unbelieving Jews. But the Lord assured Paul not to be afraid of their attacks. God told him, “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). Paul settled there and continued teaching God’s word.

Soon there was an uprising of the unbelieving Jews against him.
They tried to silence Paul and to discredit him by accusing him of teaching against God’s law. They even brought the case to the Roman court under Proconsul Gallio. He had just come to power shortly before Paul got there in 52 AD. He was not about to cater to the pressure of the Jews so early in his appointment. So he dismissed the case on the grounds that it was a matter of Jewish theology, not Roman law.

Acts 18:17 tells us that he sent them away and Sosthenese was beaten. We don’t know for sure if its the same Sosthenese who was with Paul when he wrote this letter. When he was beaten he was one of the current leaders of the Jewish synagogue. Probably the court guards beat him for bringing the case to the Roman proconsul. Some think the Jews beat him for bungling the case. We don’t know for sure. Neither Luke nor Paul tells us.

God had kept Paul and the Christians safe in Corinth as he had specially promised. A new synagogue had been established and included some very strong and able leaders.

His stay in Corinth lasted about a year and a half, then it was time to leave.
He set out to sea for Syria traveling with Pricilla and Aquila. We know that they would have left a short time after March 10 in the year 53 AD. That was when shipping resumed after it was suspended due to seasonal conditions.

Paul was in Ephesus on his 3rd Missionary journey
when he received troubling reports from Corinth.

The news coming from Corinth was not good. There is no doubt that there were true believers there. Paul spoke very positively about them in the opening of his letter to them.

2. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Paul was a very compassionate man.
He deeply cared that these brothers in the Lord were not growing spiritually as they should be. His concern for their well being compelled him to write to them. We no longer have the first letter Paul wrote to Corinth. We know about it from a comment he makes in 1 Corinthians 5:9 where he said, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.”

Obviously this was written before what we call his “first letter” to the church there. Paul waited to hear how his letter was received. Soon word came back to him while he was still in Ephesus:

Sadly, things were far from settled in Corinth.
His information came from two main sources. He got one report which came from the house of Chloe.
1 Corinthians 1:11, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.”

The Corinthian church also sent him a letter asking a number of questions.
1 Corinthians 7:1, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:”

In response he wrote this letter we know as First Corinthians.

Just before he wrote the letter he sent Timothy and Erastus on their way to Corinth. They took the long route over land and planned stops along the way. It does not seem that the problems at Corinth were the main purpose of their trip. So Paul intended to send his letter over the faster sea route, It would have arrived there before Timothy would reach Corinth. Twice in 1 Corinthians Paul tells them that Timothy was coming [4:17, 16:10-11].

It’s a reasonable suggestion that the outline of 1 Corinthians answers the two reports he received.

First, in chapters 1-6, he dealt with the issues reported by Chloe’s people.
There were serious divisions in the church. They had a tragic party spirit and spiritual pride that caused friction. He corrected some serious sexual immorality which was being tolerated in the church. Criticism was being directed against Paul’s apostolic authority, and lawsuits were being considered or in process between believers. (4:1-4, 5:1, 6:1-6)

In general there was disruptive pride, a lack of brotherly love, and a lack of obedience to the law of God.

Then, in chapters 7-16, he dealt with the questions from the church in its letter to him.
They had asked about marriage and divorce, virginity, food offered to idols, abuses in worship regarding the headship of the men in the church, and problems relating to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, there were abuses of the special spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gave the early church, and there was confusion about the promise of the resurrection of the body. Then he detailed the method to be used in collections for relief for the church in Jerusalem.

The Corinthian believers had a confused foundation for dealing with these very practical matters. Their slowness in growing in sanctification produced immoral answers to their problems. On the one hand there was a moral laxity. Some engaged in very sinful behavior. On the other hand some went to the extreme of strict asceticism, the denial of all pleasures.

Some were so willing to intermingle with sinners that they behaved like them. Others took isolation to an extreme and had no contact with those who needed the gospel.

In this letter Paul mentioned his own plan to visit them as soon as he could.
He had asked Apollos to go to help them right away but he wasn’t able to. Paul’s plans were to stay in Ephesus a little longer, at least until Pentecost (16:8). But then he would go to Corinth in person.

Before he dealt with all of this, he called for God’s blessing on them:

3. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace is that undeserved, unearned, favor of God that loves us in spite of ourselves. It is not based upon our own merits, heritage, or deeds. It flows from that infinite and hard to understand love that saves offensive sinners. He takes those who deserve only his wrath, and makes these rebellious creatures into his treasured children.

Peace is not just a wish for nothing bad to ever happen to them. It’s a prayer that through whatever circumstances they go, there will be an inner confidence and assurance of God’s tender care and preservation.

But Paul didn’t call for these benefits as if he could provide them.
They were not to presume they had the natural potential for grace and peace hidden deep inside them. The source of these qualities is God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. God alone can provide them. There is no other foundation upon which such vital needs can rest, than the all-sufficient work of our Savior who became the substitute for his people’s condemnation. Nothing else could possibly be added. God alone is the maker and giver of all we need.

This is what we can expect from the lessons
of this inspired and God-preserved letter.

As God’s covenant people we are also the recipients of this letter. It’s lessons and promises show us not only his instructions for the immediate concerns of Corinth. They also provide some general principles we can benefit from.

There are errors to avoid as we study letters to particular churches:
We should not assume that everything that applied to the Corinthian believers in the first century would also apply generally for believers in every place and in every era. But likewise we shouldn’t ignore the eternal truths behind these instructions.

Read this book all the way through to get the larger picture. If God’s word is to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths, we need to read it, know what it says, and think on it prayerfully. You will see that as Corinth was a troubled city, we too live in a troubled world. But also, as Corinth had answers in the gospel of Christ, we have those answers too.

The news of the day, and our corrupted culture, can tempt us either to adopt its dangerous ways, or to give up and become discouraged. But the good news of God is our hope and foundation. As we make good use of it with the Holy Spirit’s guidance we will learn to overcome the world’s temptation and find great encouragement and hope.

(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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