Handout / Small Group Questions:
Before we get into our discussion of 1 Corinthians 5 next week, it’s very important that we look back to the context.
Remember the Context
The Apostles Paul is writing to a church he had planted in the Greek city of Corinth about three years prior to writing this letter.
Corinth was one of the bigger, more important cities of its day and was full to the brim with trade, politics, money, and religion. When you think of Corinth, think of it as an amalgamation of a twenty-first century inner city like downtown Ottawa and all the worst parts of the internet come to life. It was overcrowded, materialistic, urban, and bursting with world class intellects, upper-class professionals, and poor, uneducated street people.
One big difference between inner city Ottawa and Corinth was that Corinth was incredibly religious. They had as many places of worship as Ottawa has coffee shops. Because it was such a strong commercial and political centre, they attracted people from everywhere, many who were only there for a few nights to do business and have fun. So they had temples to the gods of Egypt, Rome, Greece, and even a Jewish Synagogue.
Modern Canadian cities have a lot in common with ancient city of Corinth. They were modern, liberal, commercial, self-indulgent, and morally decadent – and they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that the term “Corinthian Girl” became shorthand for prostitute. If you met someone who was a sexually out of control, you would say they were “living like a Corinthian”. No other city came even close to having this kind of reputation. To walk down the streets of Corinth or worship in their temples was to experience the most explicitly pornographic parts of the internet come to life.
Paul planted a church there and pastored them for about a year and a half before leaving to plant churches in different cities. While he was gone, the corruption of the city started to creep in, and a whole lot of bad things started to happen in this church. Some of the Christians were worried, so they sent a delegation of people to find Paul (who was then in Ephesus) to tell him what was going on and get some help. Around the same time this official delegation found Paul, it seems that an unofficial group was sent on behalf of a person named “Chloe” (1 Cor 1:11) who had concerns of her own. On top of that, it seems that Paul was already getting news from other people who had been through Corinth, visited the church, and were telling him all manner of unsettling things.
Paul presumably prayed about the situation and realized he couldn’t go to Corinth right away so God inspired him to write a letter to them, but he doesn’t start with laying down accusations and correcting their behaviour. Instead, he starts by preaching the gospel to them again.
For us it’s kind of a weird reaction. Imagine you left on a missions trip somewhere and left the kids at home, only to start getting reports that your kids had invited the Hell’s Angels for dinner where they ate the family cat, your daughter had married your uncle, were filming adult movies in your bedroom, had joined a cult, and burnt down half the house. How do you think you would have started a letter to them? Would it start with , “To my kids who have been cleaned up by Jesus, saints of God, I give thanks to my God always for you!”
That’s how Paul started! Why? Because he knew that God’s plan for that church wasn’t merely to changing their behaviour, but to rescue their souls. The issue wasn’t just what they were doing wrong, but that the sin they had allowed to take over their hearts and their church was destroying them, which meant they had forgotten about Jesus.
Remember the Gospel
So the letter begins by reminding them that even though they are messing up, they are still saved, because Jesus loves them and they believe in Jesus. Their behaviour, though dangerous, deplorable and disappointing, hasn’t disqualified them from heaven. It is not they who have to hold on to Jesus, but Jesus who is holding on to them, even as they try to slither away.
He’s disappointed that there are such terrible divisions among them, but not only because it hurts them and reflects badly upon God, but because it demonstrates such a lack of understanding and appreciation for the grace and love that Jesus has shown them.
He says in 1:26-31:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
He doesn’t jump into correcting all of their theological errors and ways they have messed up their worship service, but instead begins by reminding of the true, pure, and powerful message of the gospel that they had experienced and believed.
He says in 2:2-5:
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but 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.”
The main thrust of the first chapters is to bring them back to the love, grace, and power they had experienced when they first believed. He’s not calling them back to a proper doctrine or religious practice, but back to the One, true Saviour, Jesus Christ.
He reminds them that even though they were a totally messed up, sinful, wretched group of people who not only didn’t know Jesus, but couldn’t care less about Him, Paul was sent to them anyway so they might hear the message of salvation. But more than this… that God had worked a miracle in their hearts so they could actually hear the message in the first place.
In 2:14 he says:“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” He’s reminding them from where they
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
He’s reminding them from where they came, and forcing them to remember that it wasn’t they who had chosen to worship God, but Jesus who had chosen them to be saved.
Over and over he reminds them what they believed at first. He doesn’t start with accusation, but with the gospel.
If I could summarize the first part of the letter, I’d say it this way: “My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan,
“My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan, sinful city I’ve ever seen, are part of my spiritual family because of Jesus. He loved you when you were lost. He sent me to tell about forgiveness, and changed your hearts so you could hear Him. And He still loves you. Why have you forgotten this? Why did you change the message you received? Why have you mixed lies with the truth? Why are you seeking sinful pleasure instead of the joy of the Lord? Why are you fighting about who is greater, when you should know that we are all just wretches saved by Jesus? I love you guys, and Jesus loves you too. I had to leave you for a little while, but Jesus is still with you. I’m very disappointed God’s love has left you so quickly. But I’m going to come back to you and help you as soon as I can.” This is a love letter!
This is a love letter!
What the Gospel Isn’t
This is the most important thing we need to remember before we get into the next sections of the letter. From this point on Paul is going to be very specific about the kinds of sins that have messed up these people, but we cannot forget that it is all built upon the foundation of the Gospel.
This is something too many of us get terribly wrong. We jump straight to accusing sinners and trying to fix people’s behaviour without starting with the gospel. We see people doing things that go against the Bible and are disappointed, angry, frightened, or disgusted, and we immediately want them to stop their behaviour – as though that’s somehow going to fix their deepest issues, bring light to their heart and restore them to God.
We tell our children that swearing is bad, cheating is bad, gambling is bad, unkind words are bad, stealing is bad, premarital sex is bad – and we try to get them to stop.
We watch people in our nation doing bad things – murder, rape, fraud, theft, kidnapping, and all kinds of messed up sexual sin – and we want the police and government to get them to stop.
We watch the news about terrible things happening in the world – starvation, child labour, human trafficking, oppression of women, political corruption, evil dictators, nuclear armament, economic disaster – and we want the other nations to rise up and make it stop.
We look inside ourselves and see all kinds of things we want to change – bad thoughts, bad habits, anger issues, pride, anxiety, sadness – and we want someone to do something that will make it stop.
But is stopping bad things the whole of the gospel? When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” did He simply mean that he’d make everyone stop doing bad things? No. Is the mission of the church to declare all the bad things that people do and tell them to stop doing them? Is the gift of the Holy Spirt inside of us simply there to be a warning beacon that tells us when we’re doing wrong? Is that the whole of the Gospel? Is that what a relationship with God is for?
No. Then why do we so often imply that it is?
Our usual Christian message is that you shouldn’t do bad things because God doesn’t like it when we do bad things. Only bad people do bad things and God doesn’t like bad people. Sinners are God’s enemies and you don’t want to be an enemy of God, do you? Therefore you should ask forgiveness of all the bad things you’ve done, stop doing bad things, and ask for God to help you never do anything bad ever again. So come to our church where we all work hard not to do or think bad things, make each other feel bad when we do or think bad things, and share the good news that Jesus helps us not do bad things.
If that’s the message we tell others, then it’s no wonder no one wants it. If that’s the message you believe, then it’s no wonder you have a hard time worshipping Jesus. If that’s the message you grew up with – to worry at all times about what you say, do, or think, because God doesn’t like it – then it’s no wonder you have a hard time praying to Him as your Loving Father? If that’s how you read the Bible – as a list of things you’re not allowed to do – then it’s no wonder that you avoid reading it. If all you see of your spiritual life is that there’s always another sin, another temptation, another habit, another dark spot on your heart – then you will always feel guilty and bad, never forgiven, saved, and free.
The Gospel is Joy
That’s not the gospel. That’s a sliver of the gospel that is presented by people who misunderstand it, and by the devil who wants you to resent God, hate the church, and feel terrible all the time.
The gospel is joy! Turn to John 1. When the Gospel of John introduces Jesus it says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Another translation says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (NLT) That’s the gospel. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) No matter how dark things are, no matter how much sin there is, how bad we think it is, the darkness can never overcome Jesus. Keep reading in John 1:9:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The Law of Moses given to the Jews only had the power to condemn humanity because no one could follow the law perfectly. It showed us how far we are from God’s will, how badly sin had corrupted us. No one who heard even the 10 Commandments could walk away without knowing they stood condemned. The Law gave one solution to the problem of sin: death (Rom 6:23) Either the sinner dies and faces God’s wrath themselves, or God accepts the death of another as a substitute. Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb 9:22) For a long time that substitute was an animal – a bull or goat – but that was never enough to satisfy God’s wrath, so more and more had to die. An animal’s blood couldn’t fully atone for the sins of a nation of humans, let alone the world!
But everyone who read the Old Testament Law and Prophets knew something greater was coming.
- When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised that one would come through Eve who would crush the serpent once and for all. (Gen 3:15).
- When God called old Abram and Sarai out of their pagan land to follow Him, He promised that from them would come one who would bless all the nations.
- When God delivered Israel from their slavery to Egypt, He had them spill the blood of a lamb so the death would pass over them – Jesus would be the final Passover lamb.
- Isaiah spoke of One who would bear the grief of sinners, carry their sorrows, be stricken and smitten by God, pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities, who would bring healing to others by the wounds afflicted to Him. One upon whom the Lord would lay upon the iniquity of all (Isa 53:1-6).
The light of man would come and face utter darkness, sin and death, take the full weight of God’s wrath, conquer sin once and for all, and offer Himself in exchange for others.
The Woman Caught in Adultery
Jesus didn’t shy away from us because we were sinners. He didn’t come and simply tell us to stop sinning, and that’s not the message we are to give to others. Certainly, He called for repentance, but that wasn’t his core mission. Let’s read John 8:1-11:
“Early in the morning he [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”
Herein we see how Jesus sees people who are in sexual sin. This isn’t about one woman who lived a long time ago. This is how Jesus sees adulterers, pornography makers and users, prostitutes, homosexuals, people who have sex outside of marriage, those with perverted hearts and minds, anyone who doesn’t line up with God’s perfect standards of human sexuality – which is everyone. This is how Jesus treats them. Remember, she didn’t come to him, but was dragged before Jesus. We see no repentance from her; only guilt, shame and fear.
Who could have thrown the first stone? Jesus. But He didn’t.
This isn’t the only place Jesus does something like this. He looks at the woman at the well, who has had a tonne of messed up relationships and shows her love and turns her into a missionary. He looks at Zacchaeus, a sinner and maybe the most hated man in town, and invites himself over for a party to meet his messed up friends.
In Luke 15:1-2 we can see the magnetic pull the love of Jesus had on sinners:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
Hearing this Jesus then tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, sharing how much God loves pursuing sinners and how much He rejoices when they come back to Him!
Next week we are going to talk about sexual sin, which is a very big deal in scripture. It tears apart souls, marriages, families, cities and nations. Sexual sin has corrupted every part of our society. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that we live in modern day Corinth. And none of us are right with God in this. Every person who has hit puberty, and some who haven’t yet, are guilty of committing sexual sin.
But when you hear this, or when you are faced with it in your life or in the lives of others, I beg you to see it in the light of the Gospel. And when you feel the conviction of sin, or see sinners around out, know that Jesus doesn’t hate you or them. He’s not disappointed in you or angry with you. He isn’t surprised by what you’ve done, nor is he repulsed. That’s not the message of His gospel.
John 3:16-17 says,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
He looks at us who have committed sexual sins, or sins of any kind, and He does what He did for the woman caught in adultery. She stood there, caught in the act, blushing, terrified, perhaps barely holding her clothes around her, feeling more guilty and scared than she ever had in her whole life. There was no doubt she had sinned, no question of her guilt, there was no question of what the law said must happen – she must die – and no one in the entire world could make her innocent – except One.
The accusers surrounded Jesus, demanded her blood, her death, her public shame to be seen by all, and he silenced them by pointing out their sin, their hypocrisy, their own guilt and shame, until the only one that was left to accuse her was Jesus, the only one who had never sinned.
And He stood up and looked at her. She was alone before the God of the universe, the judge of all mankind who knew that she wasn’t just an adulterer, but knew every other sin she had ever committed too. He looked into her eyes, but saw not only the sin, he saw the woman, the girl, the baby God had formed in her mother’s womb. His heart, full of compassion and love for her, released her from her guilt, and told her to sin no more knowing fully well she would.
And God the Father took that sin, written on His divine ledger, the list of things that would be held against her after death, and he erased it – and then wrote it on the list of sins that would be held against Jesus, His Only Son. God the Father would punish Jesus the Son for her sin of adultery. He would take the accusations, shame, beatings, death, and divine wrath so she wouldn’t have to.
That’s why He could send her away without casting the stone. It would disobey God’s Law not to hold her to account. But, there was one way she wouldn’t have to die – if someone took that punishment for her. Payment must be made. Blood must be spilt. And He would spill His. That’s why He came. No to condemn sinners, but to save them.
That’s the gospel. That’s why we sing. That’s the joy. That’s our hope. That’s where we find peace. That’s the source of our love and forgiveness. That’s what we preach and teach and share, and what Paul was so concerned that the Corinthians would remember, because they had lost their joy, hope and love, because they had lost the gospel and got wrapped up in the world.
So I implore you, as we enter this next section of 1 Corinthians, do not forget that it is all said in the light of the loving forgiveness and amazing grace that comes from Jesus Christ to all sinners who would believe.