Corinthians

Game On

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The Apostle Paul often used figures of speech from arena competition.  In Corinth, the people were most familiar with the Isthmian Games.  Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 9 in that context, it’s worth learning a bit more about the games before looking at the passage.

      Athletes had to have the right credentials. They could not compete if they did not pass a background check that had to do with social class (they could not be slaves or criminals) and personal character (they could not be liars and cheats). They trained with intensity for ten months before even being allowed in the games. They ate a particular diet; they exercised a lot; they sacrificed many comforts for the sake of the games.

      During the games, a herald (which we translate “preacher”) had quite a few roles:

  • display the prizes
  • encourage the contestants
  • convince the audience they should emulate the contestants
  • explains the rules of each contest
  • announce the victors and crown them

     In fact, when the athletes entered the venue, the herald would loudly announce: “Who can accuse this man?” If no one did, he would say that since the contestant was not a slave, thief, or person of corrupt morals, he could enter the games. After the competition, the judges declared one winner, who received a crown of some type of vegetation.

     It’s in this context that Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)


Paul is the herald for the church – the “preacher.’ As 1 Corinthians 9 unfolds he displays the prize, exhorts the contestants, encourages people to copy them, declares the terms (rules and boundaries), and declares his own eligibility.

There’s at least one key difference - Paul doesn’t address their origin or training.  There was no herald in the church announcing who was qualified to enter the games based on their history.  If that were the case, no one would be eligible. They couldn’t earn their way into the spiritual arena through birth or hard work. They were in if they followed Christ.

Paul then tells them to train and compete as athletes who really want to win.  Jesus once said, “Count the cost if you want to follow me.” Paul picks up this theme – following Christ will demand time, attention, and effort. It will change your life if you run is such a way as to win. 

In order to do this, Paul had to discipline his body, literally “making it a slave.”  This is a wrestling analogy. Paul is going to put his sinful urges into a headlock and put them down for the count. If you’ve heard the phrase “like a boss,” that’s what’s going on here.

Then Paul says, “I do not run like one running aimlessly (ignorantly), so that I myself will not be disqualified.” No athlete would start a contest without knowing the rules. Paul was basically saying, “I do not follow Christ like one ignorant about life in the Kingdom of God. What I do is purposeful.”

 What was the prize? The New Testament refers to a number of different prizes, goals, or rewards:

  • "the calling that is above" (Galatians 4:26; Colossians 3:1)
  • "the heavenly calling" (Hebrews 3:1)
  • "the crown of righteousness" (1Corinthians 9:24; 2Timothy 4:8)
  • "crown of life." (Revelation 2:10)
  • "a crown of glory that does not fade away." (1Peter 5:4)
  • “prize of the upward call of Christ” (Philippians 3:4)

These are all part of the broader “citizenship of heaven” Paul talks about in Philippians 3.  We are citizens of Heaven, but right now we live here. There is a race and a prize even while we wait for the Ultimate Crown of Life. The most direct language Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9 is connected with his calling as a minister of the Gospel. The prize is the blessing and reward of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord…?  Don’t we have the right to food and drink?  Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?  Is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?  ...If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ…What is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge…. “   (1 Corinthians 9:1-12 – excerpted)

Who goes to war, plants a field, or raises a herd at their own expense? Nobody – at least not willingly.  In the same way, Paul had the right to be honored and supported for the spiritual service he has given them. But Paul said that really didn’t matter. What mattered was the work of the gospel, not whether or not he was underappreciated and treated unfairly.  He went on to clarify:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) 

Remember, he’d just written about how they were to honor each other in midst of the “MeatGate Scandal.”  The ruling principle in that situation applies here as well: Paul would give up all kinds of rights and privileges and non-compromising issues to spread the gospel. Rather than make all people become like him, he was going to become like them.

So he went to the Jews and observed their ceremonies - and the Gentiles said, “What? Is he reverting to legalism? We’re the freedom people! You’re ruining the gospel!” He went to the Gentiles and hung out with them - and the Jews said, “What?  They are law breakers! You’re ruining the Gospel!”  But Paul was just seeing how he could connect with a group that needed to hear about Jesus in a way that did not compromise his integrity or the Gospel message. 

That’s the race Paul was running and heralding here: sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with integrity will bring about a prize that will not fade for all of eternity.

 

Remind Me Who I Am

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While in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. He had to tackle a couple of serious issues that were not only dividing the church, but also harming their witness in the city of Corinth. Though Paul dealt with specific moral issues, his goal was far more encompassing. He wanted to say something important about life in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine (if you will) PauI taking a break after writing the first couple of chapters. He decides to meet a friend for breakfast to talk throughs some of the issues as he prepares for what is now referred to as 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. ( I should note that all the cultural details I give in this conversation are taken from some very detailed history of the Greeks and Romans culture of that time. Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among The People" provides an excellent historical background for this imagined conversation).

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“So Paul, how’s the letter going?”

“Well, I took a little time to talk about humility and pride, and how God has a way of using the unnoticed and overlooked to build his kingdom. I told them they were like a field that God farms – the dirt, specifically, that just nourishes what it’s been given. That was to bring them all to the same level. Then I told them they were like God's building – they are all still chosen and placed in the structure by God, but He’s building a presence in Corinth that provides safety and stability. I finished with the claim that they were like a temple. God’s presence and spirit inhabits them, which makes them holy. “

“I like it. Dirt’s humble, but temples are holy. Good combination. There's both a humility and honor that comes with committing to the service of Christ.”

“That's true. I hope those analogies connect.”


“So what’s the next topic?”

“Well, I told them in my last letter not to tolerate sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). They took that to mean that they couldn’t hang out with anybody who was immoral, which meant pretty much everybody in Corinth. That wasn’t my point. I was hoping they would read that as “raising the bar” within the church. On the one hand, they got super spiritual and disconnected from the community. On the other hand, they overlooked a huge problem right there in the church. I don’t know if I told you, but there’s one guy in the church who is sleeping with his father’s wife." (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

“Yikes.”

“She’s his stepmom, but it’s still adultery and awfully close to incest.”

“That’s not good.”

“That's an understatement. Then there’s all the people throwing lawsuits at each other and making fools of themselves in the courts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:5-8). And if that’s not bad enough, they aren’t just looking for justice – they are cheating other people in the church. As if they weren’t having a hard enough time spreading the message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. I have to get through to them that this is not the Kingdom of God. This is not a life of grace and peace – and holiness.”

“Why is it that these kind of issues pop up in Corinth and not, say, in Thessalonica?”

“The Thessalonicans were busy staying alive. It’s not like that in Corinth. Power isn’t their enemy; pleasure is. Have you ever been to Corinth?”

“No, but I’ve heard stories.”

“Well, there’s a lot to learn about what it means to be a Corinthian. There’s a lot of idol worship. There are 10 temples at least, and maybe up to 24 or 25 holy places. And all the gods are in competition, so all the followers are in competition too. So when people decided to follow Jesus, the transition was a little messy. They didn’t all like each other, because they were following different gods before. It was easy to copy the pattern, just this time it was, “I’m was with Apollos” instead of Jupiter, and “I was with Paul” instead of Artemis,” and “I was with Peter” instead of Poseidon. They still thought they to earn the favor of the gods by being impressive; they had to follow just the right person to be on God’s good side depending on what they want.
     I don’t think they ever came to church with actual idols, but the old mindset was still there. They didn’t believe God was actually interested in them unless they could get his attention. The idea of grace – God “leaning in to you”, being on your side - was brand new.

“So you’ve got a church full of people trying to impress God like they tried to impress their old gods.”

“Yep. And if you have the mindset that God’s love is based on how impressive you are, then most of the people in their church have their work cut out for them. You can’t earn God’s love, but even if you could, they were in for a rough road. For example, there are plenty of men joining the church who were into the symposiums.

“I’ve been to symposiums here, and it was just a bunch of old guys sitting around and talking about ideas.”

“Symposium literally means “drinking together.” For some people, that’s just a way of saying it’s a social gathering with some wine, but not in Corinth. A bunch of guys would get together, ban their wives, and drink themselves under the table… where the flute girls were waiting for them, and they weren’t playing music. It was a rare symposium that got anything constructive done.
     But the symposiums were just entry level. The komos guys were worse. They were the ones who led the late night parties, the ones who would drink excessively all night, then walk around the town and kidnap and rape people in the name of having a good time.”

“Sounds like a’ reality play’ waiting to happen – 'Keeping Up With the Corinthians.'”

“It’s hard to keep up with the Corinthians, let me tell you. It’s not just alcohol and parties either. There are thousands of temple prostitutes, and huge parties that eventually end up with everybody sleeping with everybody else.
     In Corinth they have a word, “porneia.” which describes a particular type of woman. The men would parade the slave girls, the "pornos," through the marketplace naked. Many of the men would buy them and beat them – you can buy vases in Corinth with drawings that celebrate their sexual and physical brutality. These men treat these women as objects, and they see sex as a simply a thing to buy and sell. As you can imagine, this mindset effects every woman to whom they relate."

“Sounds like it’s tough to be a woman in Corinth.”

“It’s tough to be a young man, also. In Corinth, it’s not unusual to find an adult man who targets a young boy, and basically owns him sexually until he gets tired of him. The conqueror is considered manly and admirable, I guess because he has shown that he is powerful and can take a young man full of potential and life and break him.
     But the boys they choose are from then on considered soft or effeminate – the Corinthians use a word “malakos” that means soft, like a garment - and less than manly, and socially they are ruined and shamed for the rest of their life. Believe me, fathers keep a close eye on their sons in Corinth.

 

“Is all this just no big deal in Corinth? Is there any kind of social stigma attached to any of this – the prostitutes, the affairs, the homosexuality?”

“There are only two kinds of people that the Corinthians reject: the boys I just mentioned, and those who commit adultery with a married woman. Adultery is off limits. Men get beaten, castrated, and even killed if they choose married women; the women lose their households and their children are declared illegitimate, which means they lose their inheritance and their citizenship. And the boys who are targeted by the adult men become outcasts as soon as the men are done with them. Other than that, men can do what they want. It’s not a great town for women or young men."

“That’s a lot of people in need of healing – not just the victims, but the abusers.”

“That’s true. I’m glad the gospel of Christ is up for the task. The church is the only place to provide a place of grace and peace.”

“It sounds like the Corinthians brought a lot of Corinth into the church with them. That makes peace a difficult thing to achieve, doesn’t it?

“That’s not the half of it. Corinth has a ton of money parading through its streets, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the money game. Some people don’t go to temples to worship idols; they sit in the bank and worship. They would steal, they would run these schemes where they would learn people’s secrets and run this extortion racket – and believe me, there are a lot of skeletons in Corinthian closets. They are used to getting what they have through bribery and corruption. They are used to using the legal system to sue people and take what is not rightfully theirs. We’ve brought in some people whose objective in life was to acquire of more wealth, and that’s not a habit that is easily broken."

“I know a guy named Ponzi who is really into that.”

“Yep, he’s got quite a following. Anyway, collecting the offering is tricky.”

“I have to think that it’s hard for people to ignore the histories of the people in the church. I’m assuming everybody knows about the others?"

“Slander and gossip is practically a game in Corinth. Have you seen all the scrolls at the checkout out lines at Jebediah’s Coconut Mart?"

“Pilate was an alien, apparently.”

“Right…. Anyway, they are nothing compared to what happens in Corinth. Any rumor is a good rumor, and people have been made and broken because of the sharp tongue or sharpened pen of some babbler who constantly destroys other people with their gossip. So add that to the mix in our church."

“So let me see if I have this right. You started a church with some serious partiers, actual idol worshippers, people who will do anything sexually, prostitutes and rapists and abusers – AND their victims. You have greedy thieving, gossiping, slanderous people. And that’s the Corinthian church?”

“I have a different way of looking at it. Who needs Jesus more than these? They are all desperately in need of a community of people who will accept them, love them, forgive them AND challenge them to be a temple for God. Jesus himself said he didn’t come for the healthy and the righteous, right? He came for the sick and the sinners (Mark 2:17). Is there a better message of hope than one that says God can turn these people into a temple in which His Holy Spirit dwells?

 

“So when you went there, you were surrounded by people with all this sin. It must have been easy to think, ‘Thank God I’m not like them! I only did…THIS!’ How did you stay humble? How did you keep this all in perspective?

“Well, look who you are talking to. The ‘I only did this’ is that I killed people. I hunted Christians down and stoned them to death. And Jesus appeared to me and called me into his service anyway. So if they can’t be a church, well, I can’t be the church either. But even if a sin wasn’t so noticeable, we all have sinned. Sometimes sin is really obvious; other times it’s far more subtle, but just as real.
     God’s love is for everyone, so we started a church with the humiliated, the shamed, and the broken, with no future for them in Corinth. And we talked about grace, and peace, and forgiveness, and holiness and what life in the Kingdom of Heaven looked like. “

“I've heard you preach the same message here. Because of Christ,  people who did evil things and people who had evil things done to them – they all can be restored and used in the service of God to bring truth, justice, peace, and grace to the world.”

“Precisely. That’s the piece of the puzzle the church is missing right now. They are having a hard time letting go of the their own past as well as the brothers and sisters in Christ. On the bad days, they still think there is no way they are good enough for God, or that they can ever overcome their past. They are still very Corinthianized. It's hard to overcome a lifetime of experiences.

“So here’s my summary: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God“ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

“That’s a pretty grim list when you put it that bluntly.”

“It’s honest.”

“Yes, it’s honest…but it’s incomplete. I also need to remind them that their history is not their destiny. They don’t have to be stuck with the guilt and punishment of sin. Put next, “And that is what some of you were" (1 Corinthians 6:11). They may think their identity is based on what defined them in the past, but that’s not who they are now. If they are feeling guilty and condemned, I want to point out that through Christ their penalty has been paid, so add this too: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

“You might have to clarify your terms here. I think the Jews know all the terminology – will the Corinthians get it? They are mostly Gentiles. ”
 
 “Washing is purifying. They had been made pure by the sacrifice of Christ. That’s one of the symbols that goes with baptism, or with washing each other’s feet during the Lord’s Supper – they were dirty, but now they have been made clean.

     Sanctified is just the ongoing process of purifying. If you walk across Ephesus, you’re feet get dirty. You wash them again. As we walk through life, our souls and lives get dirty. God washes them again.
     Justified is a legal term, and believe me, this church knows about legal terms. Even though they are guilty of a lot of sin, when they stand before God He will pardon them because the penalty has been covered by Christ. They will own nothing, even though they once owed everything.

“That’s always good to hear. All of us need God’s mercy and grace. It’s easy to think that all of our past failures somehow define us, and even thought I know in my head that’s not the end of the story of my life, it’s not always easy to really let that sink in. I know what I was, and that can be depressing if I stop there. Thank God that’s not who I am now."

                                           

                       Jason Gray, "Remind Me Who I Am"

 

Buildings and Fields


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What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.  For we are co-workers in God’s service. 
“You are God’s field; God’s building. 
 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,  their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. 
 (1 Corinthians 3:5-12)
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After Paul greets the church in Corinth, he begins to address the issues that are robbing them of God's grace and peace.  He uses three analogies to describe the church: a field, a building, and a temple. 

Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus at a time when agriculture flourished.  I imagine him walking through the countryside as he ponders how to explain to the church in Corinth what their role was in the Kingdom of God.  Hmmm.... "The church at Corinth is a field on which God has labored so the church would yield a harvest."  The word Paul uses for field” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.  It refers specifically to a "tilled" or "cultivated" field.  It refers to the dirt.

Its a very down-to-earth analogy, but what does it actually tell us? What is the role of a field?
  •         Allow the farmer to get rid of weeds.
  •         Allow the farmer to add compost/mulsh/fertilizer.
  •         Let the farmer plant what he wants.
  •         Nourish what is planted.
What  can the field do to bring about a harvest? Nothing - other than nourish what it’s been given.  If someone else is not involved,  the field is just dirt and weeds. The church is God's field, God's cultivated dirt.  The dirt is important and necessary, but it’s the most humble part of the field.  People wax eloquently about "amber waves of grain"; nobody writes songs about “dirty waves of dirt.” 
“It’s not about you,” says Paul to a Corinthian church so desperate to be impressive.  “Relax.  Be soil. Be willing to nourish what’s been given to you.   Let God do his work.  You will be the field that produces a crop full of grace and peace.”    

Just to be sure the analogy sinks in, Paul looks for another analogy.  If he were walking from the countryside full of fields into the city of Ephesus, he would have approached and walked past an array of impressive structures. Perhaps the second comparison fell into place naturally - church as a building.

If you have ever lived in areas threatened by natural disasters, you know how important it is to have not only a good foundation, but quality materials all the way up.  Storms and earthquakes and natural disasters will happen, and then we will find out whose building will last. 

Think of the foundation as the core truths of Christianity:
  • There is a trinitarian God of all creation;
  • Jesus Christ was God incarnate;
  • Jesus died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins;
  • There will be a judgement and a life to come after this one.

The rest of church doctrine and life is built on core truths such as these. Paul said he laid the foundation, and now other teachers are finishing the construction.  If the church wants what they are building to last, it's important that they choose their builders well. The entire construction project matters.

A field is just dirt, but a building is going to be seen.

A field nourishes, but a building protects and shelters.

There's more to being part of the Kingdom of God than the field analogy could capture. But even in this more outwardly impressive picture, the building did not build itself any more than the field planted itself.  There was an architect and a builder.  The building doesn’t cut and paint itself, no matter how awesome it looks.

God uses the church as a field to bring about new life; God uses the church as a building to protect, shelter and showcase this life.

The Corinthians were used to earning favor from their gods, which meant bringing all their own personal awesomeness to the temple and the people. The gods gave them nothing that they did not earned. Paul turns this way of thinking on its head:

  • You don’t have to earn God’s grace
  • You don’t have to prove that you have worth.
  • You don’t have to build yourself up and trample on others to rise to the top.
  • You don’t have to name drop, and tell everybody how awesome you are because of who you know.
  • You just have to be surrendered to the one who plants and builds.
Then you will find fields full of grace and buildings full of peace.

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