Today we begin our series on 1 Corinthians. This Sunday, it’s my job to give you the context of this letter. So when you leave today, we hope that you have a clear understanding the timing of this letter, the author, the city and what this letter means to us. This entire story begins in the book of Acts.
Jesus was crucified, resurrected and ascended into heaven. Then around two months later [7 weeks], we read in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit anointed the disciples in the upper room. They begin speaking in tongues. Peter preaches. The disciples are healing people. Thousands of people believe in Jesus and the new church begins.
Now, you must understand, this is a huge problem for the religious leaders. They are the ones who hated Jesus and manipulated the Romans into killing him just a couple of months ago. The religious leaders thought, with the death of Jesus, their problem is resolved. Now, the Jesus followers are exploding in number. This is a Jesus problem times ten.
So what do they do? The Pharisees began to persecute the church. Stephen becomes the first martyr. He is stoned to death. One of the Pharisees is called Saul. Saul is the one who became Paul and wrote 1 Corinthians. Saul was the one who held the coats of the people who stoned Stephen to death. He is a young Pharisee with lot of great potential. He is the one who gets a group of guys to hunt down, arrest and kill Christians. In Acts 9, God smacks Saul off his horse and Saul is radically converted and becomes a Christian.
About 14 years later, Saul [now Paul] goes on his first missionary trip to tell people about God’s grace. Now just a quick time out. When I say God’s grace, that means Paul was teaching that we are saved by what God did and we are not saved by our heritage or what we do [that means you follow all the rules like circumcision]. Please understand, the Pharisees in the church hated Paul’s message of grace so much, they tried to hunt and kill him for it. Why? They taught that being saved required you to be a Jew, be circumcised and following the over 800 rules. What Paul was teaching, ‘God did it for us’ was heresy.
Around 3 years later, after the first trip, Paul leaves on his second missionary trip. On his second missionary trip, Paul goes to the city of Corinth and starts a new church. All of this is recorded in Acts 18.
In Corinth, Paul went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach about God’s grace [v 4]. It didn’t go well. The Jews, scripture says, opposed him and insulted him [v 6]. Remember, Paul’s message of grace was hated. So Paul leaves the synagogue and stays in a local house to teach [v 7-8]. As Paul struggles and that’s when God visits Paul in a dream and tells him, “Don’t be afraid, be bold, I’m with you!” [v 9-10]. So Paul stays in Corinth for a year and a half [18 months].
Before I continue, I need to tell you about Corinth. Corinth is a city between two harbors, only 4.5 miles apart, that connected Asian to Europe. So you can imagine how many people and products moved through Corinth. It’s the melting pot of everything; people, races, lifestyles, religion, philosophies, etc. People came from all over to deliver and sell their products, stay and rest and party. Because of all this activity, Corinth becomes very wealthy.
It also, second only to the Olympics, has an athletic festival to honor the god Poseidon. It’s a popular sports city where competitions are held.
Corinth also had a melting pot of religions. The main idol they worshipped was Aphrodite. The goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. The temple to Aphrodite is so large and rich, it owned over 1,000 slaves and prostitutes. Part of the worship to Aphrodite is having sex with prostitutes.
To wrap it all together, Corinth became so bad, it became a verb: “Corinthianize.” That means, ‘to be promiscuous,’ no limits, no boundaries. Corinth, even for its day, become so known for gross immorality and drunken debauchery.
Imagine for second, starting a church in Corinth. Do you think you would run into a few problems? That’s exactly what happened. Paul spends a year and half in Corinth, starts a new church and moves on.
Three years after Paul was in Corinth, he goes on a third missionary trip, he is in Ephesus. He gets an update on the church in Corinth. It quite literally is a train wreck. Here are just a few problems. The church is arguing about who the best leader is. Some say Paul. Some say Apollos. Some say Peter. So say Jesus. This argument is dividing the church.
There is gross immorality in the church, one guy was sleeping with is step mom, and to make it worse, the church is proud that they were tolerating the sin.
They were taking each other to public court or issues. The city of Corinth is watching people who call themselves Christians in the same church publicly suing each other.
When they would have communion, it was time to get together and eat and then have communion. Because they wouldn’t share food, some would go home hungry and after communion, many were drunk. You know that you might need to make a change when you hold a communion service and people can’t drive home.
There was a misunderstanding about marriage, sex and being single.
The church was a mess.
It actually shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The people of Corinth struggled to walk away from their godless, pagan cultural into a new life where Christ is at the center of their lives. Think about it for a second. You live a city that become a verb: “Corinthianize.” That means to live a promiscuous life. No limits. No boundaries. It’s normal to have sex with prostitutes and call it worship. They might have accepted God’s love and grace but that doesn’t mean they are automatically pure. It doesn’t mean that they are nice people. It doesn’t mean they know how to be in healthy long term relationships. It doesn’t mean they are living out God’s principles perfectly. It will take time to center their lives around Christ.
Because of the mess in the church of Corinth, Paul had to write a letter to them. We know this letter as 1 Corinthians. What was a mess for Paul is actually a huge benefit to us. Throughout this letter, Paul has to deal with practical life issues and has to help the church understand how you put Christ at the center of your life. This letter couldn’t be more relevant to our day to day life.
Here is, in my opinion, the key section in this letter. The key verse, I will give you later.
1 But for right now, friends, I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You’re acting like infants in relation to Christ, 2 capable of nothing much more than nursing at the breast. Well, then, I’ll nurse you since you don’t seem capable of anything more. 3 As long as you grab for what makes you feel good or makes you look important, are you really much different than a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way? MSG 1 Corinthians 3:1-4
Paul is dealing with the core of being a Christian, a Christ follower. To be a disciple of Christ, you have to give up something. You have to stop demanding your own way. And that is the core of all the struggles in the Corinthian church.
Think about this.
They are coming out of a city that is so bad, it became a verb. It’s a culture of no limits, no boundaries. They hear about God’s grace and like it so they come to church. The problem is, they know about God’s grace but they are used to doing what they want, when they want and how they want. God’s principles of holiness are getting in their way.
Paul writes, guys, isn’t obvious that your culture has a greater pull on you than God? Look at your life, you are only happy when things go your way and because of this. You are immature, you need to grow up.
Paul writes later in Chapter 10,
1 Remember our history, friends, and be warned. All our ancestors were led by the providential Cloud and taken miraculously through the Sea. …5 But just experiencing God’s wonder and grace didn’t seem to mean much – most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.
6 The same thing could happen to us. We must be on guard so that we never get caught up in wanting our own way as they did. 7 And we must not turn our religion into a circus as they did – “First the people partied, then they threw a dance.” 8 We must not be sexually promiscuous – they paid for that, remember, with twenty-three thousand deaths in one day! [Numbers 25].
Here is my favorite verse in 1 Corinthians .
9 We must never try to get Christ to serve us instead of us serving him; they tried it, and God launched an epidemic of poisonous snakes. [Numbers 21] 10 We must be careful not to stir up discontent; discontent destroyed them. MSG 1 Corinthians 10:1-10
The church of Corinth experienced God’s grace but they turned their religion into trying to get Christ to serve them. Why? They wanted their own way. Paul gives a history lesson.
Numbers 25 tells the story of the Children of Israel experiencing God’s grace being freed from slavery and around 30 years later having a party with Moabite women leading to a sex party. 23,000 people died. What happened? Israel experience God freeing them from Egypt but they wanted to have their own way and have sex outside of God’s boundaries. Paul was saying, you can’t experience God’s grace and then twist God’s arm to serve you.
Numbers 21 tells the story that the Children of Israel, same time period, being angry with God. Complaining that God dragged them into the desert with no decent food or water. They were creating discontent in the community. God sent poisons snakes as a punishment. What happened? Israel experienced God freeing them form Egypt but they wanted to have their own way and complained about it. Paul was saying, you can’t experience God’s grace and then twist God’s arm to serve you.
In this letter to the church Corinth, Paul deals with five key areas of life. In each area, Paul shares what it looks like when give your life to Christ and you stop demanding your own way.
Chapters 1-4 deals with divisions in church and understanding our servant roles.
Chapters 5-7 deals with sex in marriage and out of marriage and being single.
Chapters 8-10 deals with how to live practically with other people.
Chapters 11-14 deals with the Church.
Chapter 15 deals with the resurrection of Christ.
So what does 1 Corinthians mean to us? As you walk through this letter, we should ask ourselves the question: have I fully submitted my life to Christ as my Lord and Savior or am I demanding my way and trying to get Christ to serve me? Scripture says,
Give yourselves humbly to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. And when you draw close to God, God will draw close to you. TLB James 4:7-8
Inviting Christ to be your Lord and Savior of your life is simple and easy, it just requires that we come to the end of ourselves and turn to Christ. What makes following Christ hard is when we want our own way and Christ doesn’t seem to be doing what we what Him to do.
Have you experienced that? Christianity feels hard. It’s a struggle. It seems frustrating. It’s not working. Do you know people who explain why following Christ doesn’t work for them? Chances are, maybe, you are fighting Christ you’re not submitting to Christ.
Think about it. Aren’t all our excuses, as to why the Christian faith doesn’t work for us, just our way of fighting Christ and demanding our own way?
Aren’t our private addictions and private unhealthy appetites our way of secretly fighting Christ to do life our way? We know what God wants and we are secretly fighting God.
Over time, allowing our negative emotions and attitudes to rule us, isn’t that our way of complaining that life isn’t going our way? The Holy Spirit who defeated death lives inside us and we allow negative emotions and attitudes to rule us. We are just fighting God.
Why are the following areas such hot buttons with people today? Sex. Sexually identity. Marriage between a man and a woman for life. Did your body just tighten a little when I said that? How about the area of money? Does it excite you to connect the idea that if I love God I give my first back to God as worship? Or does that offend you – we shouldn’t talk about it – just talk more about grace? What about the area of hurt, anger and forgiveness? The spiritual connection between God forgiving me requires that I forgive others.
I’ll tell you why these are hot topics. Christ’s teaching is clear and we fight Christ to demand our own way. The topics aren’t ‘hot.’ The topics aren’t controversial. Us demanding our own way makes them hot buttons issues to us.
Let me ask you: Have you fully submitted your life to Christ as your Lord and Savior or are you demanding your own way and trying to get Christ to serve you?