Ok, so I need you to take a moment to remember the last few sermons, because they have all been, in some way, preparatory for this one. On the first Sunday of the year we talked about we are sometimes convicted to make changes in our life, and therefore make “Resolutions” to change – but how those resolutions rarely last very long. That’s when we talked about accountability not only to God but also to each other. The next week we talked about the Church Membership Covenant and how it is simply a type of accountability tool to help each other walk with Jesus more joyfully, biblically, and consistently. That was followed by last week’s message on “Unity and Harmony” which was an overview the theological underpinnings of how and why the work of Jesus on the cross brings us back into fellowship with Him and with each other, and how us doing the hard work to live that out brings glory to God and honor to Jesus.
Hopefully, those big thoughts of Accountability, Unity, and Harmony have been bouncing around your head for the past month because it will help you understand what is going on in our passage today. Please turn to 1 Corinthians 14:1-33.
First, and as always, a little context first. 1 Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul, inspired by God and with the authority of Jesus, to a new and relatively small church in the ancient Greek city of city of Corinth. Corinth was not unlike Ottawa or other big cities in North America today. It was cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic with a vast array of religions and places of worship. It had very rich and very poor people, famous thinkers, great actors, beautiful architecture, and was a port town with lots of tradesman and visitors.
Atheism was almost unheard of and the life of the city ebbed and flowed from the pagan temples. They were where you’d go not only for worship, but for entertainment, to find work, to buy groceries, or to eat out. The experience of being part of a “worship service” in one of these temples was pretty intense. There were temple prostitutes, drugs, music, and other pretty crazy stuff going on two as people opened their minds to demonic influence. Some people would scream, others laugh. Some would fall down and shake, writhe on the floor, speak gibberish, or tell fortunes with special “words from the gods”.
None of this was considered weird though. It would be normal for someone, rich or poor, man or woman, to come into the temple, join an orgy, take drugs, and party – or beg favour from the god and be told to either pay money, hurt themselves, or do something extreme or terrible to ensure the god’s goodwill. That was normal.
Then the Apostle Paul came to town and planted a Christian church and it was very different from what they were used to. He was tired and overwhelmed from a long, difficult mission trip, but stayed for a year and a half, preaching, teaching, counselling, and preparing the church. He taught them that God loved them and saved them by grace, and didn’t need or want them to do all the crazy stuff they were doing at the pagan temples. He taught them God’s expectations for biblical faith, salvation, prayer, and how God creates people for his glory and equips them to worship Him and take care of each other.
He left and went on to plant and help more churches, but it wasn’t too long until he started hearing that there were problems in Corinth. We’ve been covering a lot of those issues over the past year or so, but most of them centred on divisions in the church – which we learned last week means that they had forgotten the very foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
They had divided on which teacher they liked better – some choosing Peter, others Paul, others Apollos – forgetting that their first allegiance was to Jesus and the teachers all just worked for Him. Because of the fighting in the church, they had given room for Satan to have a field-day among them and some of the habits of the old temples had worked their way back into their church. They forgot the gospel and started to believe they had to do certain things to get saved and win God’s favour. They forgot what God had said about purity and righteousness as both rampant sexual immorality and some form of pleasure denying asceticism had grown up in the church. They forgot about the unity and harmony that comes from being united to Jesus and started suing one another. They had also forgotten about the exclusive claims of Jesus, that there is only one God and one way to be saved as they grew bored with their church or felt pressure from society to go back to their old temples to offer worship to the pagan gods – while other people were using their freedom in Christ as an excuse to offend everyone around them by refusing to conform to the basic, cultural standards of their society.
In the section before the one we’re looking at right now, we’re seeing how all this had crept into the most foundational of their Christian practices as even the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, what we call Communion, had been corrupted. They’d meet for a worship service, which always included the special time of Communion where the sacrifice of Jesus was remembered, and it was a fiasco. Some would come early and eat all the food, others would get drunk on the communion wine, and the hungry among them would continue to starve.
Paul then, in chapter 12, turns the topic to Spiritual gifts, which are God’s special gifts given upon conversion to believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help people worship God, serve their church family, and spread God’s love around the world. We talked about that in November and the sermon is online, so I’m not going to review it here, but I want you to remember that the big issue was that they had gotten God’s gifts confused with the type of things that were happening at the pagan temple.
In their previous religious experiences, it was all about self and selfishness. It was about manipulating the gods and the people around them to get what they wanted. It was about having intense ecstatic experiences that centred on their own desire for pleasure or excitement. It was about being the centre of attention, feelings special, and being more spiritual, more euphoric, more intense than those around them.
But the Christian church isn’t about selfishness, it’s about selflessness. It’s about being like Jesus, the servant of all who gave His life as a ransom for many. It’s about God saving us unto good works and living a life humbly serving His will and not our own. It is about using our gifts, talents, abilities, finances, to help others and point them to Jesus.
Giving up self-centred religion is hard though. Giving up on the belief that we can manipulate God is hard. Giving up being the centre of attention and living for others is hard too – which is one reason why this church, once the Apostle left – slipped back into old habits and needed to be corrected. In that correction, Paul gives some teaching on the Spiritual gifts, teaches them about loving service in Chapter 13 (which I hope you remember), and then here in chapter 14 addresses two of the gifts that were causing most of the trouble – Prophecy and Tongues.
Prophecy and Tongues
Just a quick note on what those are, so the passage is more easily understood when we read it:
Prophecy is, essentially, is the spiritual gift of speaking words from God. This is either something God has suddenly revealed or brought to mind, usually the words of scripture that apply to a certain situation or some piece of wisdom or direction or are very much like the gifts of preaching and teaching when God uses a person to speak and explain the Word of God to someone. They come through normal, human language, and according to the Bible, have to be tested or evaluated for truth, based on what God has already revealed in the Bible (1 Cor 14:29, 1 Thess 5:19-21).
So the picture of the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t Moses standing on a hillside declaring words from God that no one has heard before, but more like a Christian friend, teacher, elder, or preacher speaking words that line up with scripture and seem to exactly fit a certain moment in time, bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening. Sometimes God uses the words that the person is speaking to go straight into the heart of the listeners, believers or unbelievers, so much so that it seems like the secrets of their heart have been revealed to the speaker and God is speaking directly to them.
The gift of Tongues is similar but different in that the message from God is coming in a language that the person speaking doesn’t know – sometimes as another human language, like in Acts 2, or sometimes in a language that no one knows. This can happen when a Christian is alone, during their private prayer times, or publically when God takes over a person’s voice and shares a message that no one is able to understand until someone with the gift of interpretation stands up to explain what the message means. When spoken privately, it’s an intimate act of worship. When spoken publically, just like the gift of prophecy, this public message is meant to bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening.
You can see how tempting it would be for a person who wants that weird, ecstatic, religious experience, or who wants to be the centre of attention, or who wants to feel special, to want this to happen to them. And especially for those in this Corinthian church where people were coming out of those pagan worship rituals. The other spiritual gifts, like hospitality, encouragement, service, giving, mercy, faith, or helps are not nearly as spectacular or flashy as tongues, right?
So, with that in mind let’s read 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 together:
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
A Gospel Issue
Do you see what the big issue is here? God is all about Christians using their gifts. He wants people to speak His word to people, to bring His wisdom and comfort and joy to them. He wants His power to be shown, for Christians to be built up, for faith to grow, worship to be exciting and inspirational, and for people to get saved. He wants believers to experience what it’s like to speak the words of life to one another and see God’s Spirit move in a powerful way.
But, as with all sources of power and all gifts, there is the risk of it being misused. Usually, our greatest strengths are those that cause us the most trouble, right? This church had a lot of amazing spiritual experience, and had seen God move in amazing ways, had experienced God’s grace in an amazing way, but with that explosive power had come the temptation toward selfishness, division and pursuing the gifts rather than the Giver.
Instead of listening to God, they were more interested in being heard by others. Instead obeying God, they kept trying to tell God what they wanted. They were treating Jesus the way they had treated their pagan gods. Instead of coming to the Son of God humbly for salvation, for direction, for hope, for help, they came for the gifts and experiences associated with Him.
This still happens today and happened when Jesus walked the earth. Turn to John 6 where it tells the story of when Jesus had preached all day and those who were listening hadn’t brought food and were hungry. He had compassion on them and miraculously fed thousands of them with one boy’s lunch. After everyone had eaten until they were full, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of extra food left over!
Now read what happened next:
“When the people saw the sign [the miracle] that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15)
What did the people want from Jesus? Eternal life? Salvation from death? Freedom from sin? Peace in their hearts through a right relationship with God? Did they even want to be with Jesus, the source of life and light, the very Son of God? No. They wanted full bellies. So Jesus takes off, runs away, and that night escapes to the entire other side of the sea. But the people follow him. Read from verse 22:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”
Do you see that there? Same issue as in Corinth. They were willing to completely bypass their relationship with God, forget about the Word of God, and dismiss everything that Jesus was offering them – for the sake of the gifts. In this case it was the food and freedom from hunger, in Corinth it was the spiritual gifts of tongues so they could feel special and powerful, but it was the same motive. They didn’t want Jesus, they wanted to use Jesus to get what they wanted – even if it meant trying to make Jesus give them what they wanted by force. They completely missed the point of the Gospel Jesus was preaching. He offered eternal life, these Jews wanted sandwiches. Jesus offered peace and purpose and a spiritual family, they wanted to babble and look cool to their friends.
This is a terrible temptation for any counsellor, preacher, or evangelist, but when we concentrate on the gifts, point people to the good things Jesus offers, we inevitably miss out on presenting the Gift-Giver! If they are converted to the gift, if we seek the gift, we will invariably feel let down because it will only feed our selfish desire for more – but if we are converted to and seek the Giver, only then will we be satisfied.
Jesus says, “I showed you signs that I’m the Saviour and the path to eternal life, but you don’t want that, do you? You want the gifts.” In another place He says,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Or, what is the point of eating your fill if you don’t accept eternal life? What is the point of speaking in tongues if you aren’t making any sense, helping anyone, worshipping God, or even connected to Him? What is the point of being the centre of attention and getting all the adulations of being a prophet, if you are far from God?
Keep reading in John 6 because something important happens there. Look at verse 28: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
The Corinthian church was so active with these gifts that they had forgotten what they had believed and the work of sharing the gospel of Jesus! Their worship services didn’t proclaim Jesus anymore. They were as bad as the pagan temple, a cacophony of drunken noise that didn’t make sense to anyone. There was no message telling people how to find peace with God, no sharing what it means to be righteous, no message of hope, mercy and grace – just meaningless madness done no longer in the name of Apollo or Aphrodite but in the name of Jesus.
Jesus implores His listeners to see the miracles as signs that they must do the one thing they must do to be saved – believe in Him. Paul, in the same way, implores the church to quit focusing on the signs and the gifts, and go back to the simple message they first believed, and to proclaim it in an orderly, understandable, humble, God glorifying way.
I could go farther into this, but I’m out of time. I want to you to take some time this week to read 1 Corinthians 14 in the light of John 6 and to explore in yourselves what ways you are focusing on the gifts rather than the Gift-Giver.
- In what ways are you simply using the people around you, the church, and even God, as a way to get what you want – even at the expense of your relationships with them and God?
- In what ways have you made your life, your home, your church, or your soul, a cacophony of self-centred noise that is out of tune with what God wants for your life? What I mean is to ask yourself about what ways you are being self-focused, self-centred, self-motivated – but pretending to do it in the name of Jesus. Teaching, helping, speaking, giving, singing, reading, eating, working, all for yourself, so you can be seen and steal glory from God by being seen by others, rather than using your gift to bring glory to Him and serve those around you. It’s impossible to hear God when everything in your life is focused on telling you how great you are.
- In what ways have you replaced a simple, orderly relationship with God, simple worship, simple prayer, simple bible reading, simple service, simple singing, with complicated, bombastic, ritualistic, religion? It could be choosing not to read the Bible so you can read the latest Christian book or listen to some preacher – or only talking about God when you are in public, but never giving Him a second thought when you are alone or with your family – or being caught up in trying to impress God with good works or punishing yourself.
- In what ways have you complicated your relationship with Jesus so that you are losing your focus on Him in favour of things that are merely about Him?
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
(1 Corinthians 6:12-20)
I want you to think back to the context of these verses, to those to whom they were originally written – the Christian church in Corinth. We sometimes think that the Bible is too old to be applicable to modern life, but we are so wrong! Recall the reputation of the city they were in and realize how similar it is to our current context.
Corinth was one of the bigger, more important cities of its day and was full to the brim with trade, politics, money, and religion. It was someone mixed modern inner-city life and the worst parts of the internet together. It was urban, materialistic, and overcrowded with every sort of person from every walk of life – intellectual elites, religious fanatics, celebrities, government workers, hard-core businessmen and poor, uneducated street people. It was the capital of the province, a port with hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world and one of the most influential commercial and manufacturing centers in the world. It was incredibly similar to Ottawa or downtown Toronto.
Everyone in town was committed to some form of religion and most were represented by the many places of worship around the city. They had temples like Ottawa has Tim Hortons. But the temples weren’t churches like you and I think of. They were like a mix of night clubs, museums, live concerts and brothels.
Sailors, tradesmen and people of all kinds would come to Corinth for business and then go to “worship” at one of these temples – the most famous of which was the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. She was literally the goddess of erotica and to worship at her temple was to see pornography come to life. Thousands of girls were kept there as sacred sex workers who would parade themselves before crowds of men so they could choose among them, pay their way (or not), and have sex as an act of worship. One ancient writer (Herodotus) wrote that every female in the city had to take their turn in the temple, whether they wanted to or not. In the centre of town was the Temple of Apollo which glorified sex too. Not with women, but with men and boys.
Today, if you want to see something pornographic, profane, illegal, or disgusting, you can lock yourself in a dark room and find it on the internet. If you want to live it out, then you have to risk making illicit connections online, but in Corinth it was simply all around you. The city was a monument to the fulfilment of any kind of appetite you might have, no matter how immoral. If you wanted the thrill of murdering someone, you could buy a slave. If you desired financial gain or political power, you had every opportunity. There was almost no kind of sexual perversion you could not try, legally. No matter what turned you on, sex, drugs, cults, war, politics, everything – it was there.
It was to this town that the Apostle Paul journeyed to and planted a church in. He felt such a strong connection to the people of this city that he spent a year and a half there – an uncharacteristically long time.
God was absolutely at work among the Corinthians. People were giving up their old, pagan, addicted, messed-up lives and turning to Jesus for cleansing and forgiveness. The utter selfishness and individuality of their former lives was overtaken by a love for each other and a desire to serve. They no longer feared the petty, ever-changing gods, or tried to manipulate them with rituals, but now had a relationship with the One, True God who they knew loved them so much that He was willing to send His Son Jesus to save them. They had become a Christian church. Paul spent months teaching them from the scriptures, preaching and teaching inside and outside the church, and defending the Christians before the government and other opposing groups. Then, before he moved on, he appointed and trained elders to carry on the work of ministry there.
After he left, cracks started to form in the leadership and among the believers. False teachers came in and taught false gospels. Unsaved people from the local temples, working for Satan, started to gain influence in the church and sow discord among the people and tempt them towards their old lives.
Paul obviously didn’t have email, but even while he was hundreds of miles away in Ephesus he was starting to get reports of some of the things going on in Corinth and it was quite unsettling. He wrote them a letter, which we don’t have, addressing some of these concerns, but it clearly didn’t work. Shortly after they received the first letter a couple contingents of people came from Corinth to track down the Apostle, tell him what was happening, and ask some very specific questions. He couldn’t leave the Ephesian church at the time so he wrote a second letter addressing the issues and answering the questions.
We’ve been through part of this letter already, which we call 1st Corinthians, and we are coming up to Chapter 7 which starts the “now concerning” part, where Paul directly answers the Corinthian questions, but before this, he addresses some of the biggest issues he’s heard about through the grapevine.
Things like them not getting along, accepting sexual immorality, rejecting the authority of the Apostles, listening to false teachers, self-deception, sinful living, and changing the word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to fit better with their culture – all things we are still very much dealing with today.
Out of Control Appetites
In our passage today we see the Apostle Paul addressing some of the root issues of what is causing the church such trouble – and if I had to pick one phrase to summarize it, it would be “Out of Control Appetites”.
Do you see the quotes around the first parts of verses 12 and 13? These are the excuses that the Corinthians were giving for their behaviour. They had strong appetites, fed and encouraged by their local culture, and instead of following the Apostles’ teaching, God’s Word, or the conviction of the Holy Spirit within them, they were trying to justify and excuse their behaviour.
We do the same thing. We have strong desires within us, natural and learned appetites that are constantly with us, nagging our mind and trying to steer our lives. Many of these appetites are biological. We have needs: air, food, water, shelter, sleep, and going to the bathroom, and when we don’t have access those things our bodies cry out for them, even causing us physical pain, until we give them what they want. Some of these appetites are not needs, per say (as in we wouldn’t die without them), but they are very strong. We have a natural appetite, or desire for safety, health, love, family, and sexual intimacy. And these appetites go further into our feelings. We want to feel confident, respected, meaningful, moral, accepted, and to know the truth.
None of these needs is wrong. God has designed us, from the very beginning, to have these needs – and they were designed to be perfectly fulfilled by being in relationship with Him and each other.
But when sin came into the world at the fall it corrupted everything, including our appetites. Now, instead of wanting enough food to survive and enjoy, we turn gluttonous, eating so much we make our bodies sick. We take sugar cane and beets, strip them of their “food” and turn them into pure sugar, and then pour that into things we swirl with caffeine, alcohol, and hyped up fats and salts.
Instead of sleeping enough to rest from our work, we now run away from work and our out of control appetite turns us into sluggards who sleep more than we should, inventing more and more devices to remove work and allow for rest.
We have a desire for safety, but now we create borders, barbed-wire fences, and bombs to keep danger away. Our insane pursuit of safety fills us with prejudice and turns us into racists. We become helicopter parents who won’t let our kids out of our site and spend staggering amounts of money on insurance and things to make us feel safe.
We want love, family, and acceptance, but our sin and selfishness cause us to reject and hurt those who are closest to us, creating family splits, divorce, fatherlessness, and runaways. Our out of control appetite to feel accepted causes us to turn from those who were supposed to care for us and seek the acceptance of others. We join gangs, cults, and clubs, giving away huge parts of ourselves in order to feel accepted by someone.
And this same thing has happened with sexual intimacy. God created the beauty of sex to be most fully enjoyed between a man and women in the committed bonds of marriage. Anything outside of this is, by God’s definition, harmful. But the appetite within us is strong, and, like in ancient Corinth, our culture has made us believe that the fulfillment of this appetite is the most important thing in the world, making it available everywhere. They have placed sexual experience at the same level as breathing air or drinking water.
And so, as this appetite grows within us, we seek to quench it. God invites us to turn our appetite over to Him and to seek fulfillment His way, but that requires sacrifice, self-control, mutual respect, the giving of oneself, and patience. But the appetite grows and everyone else tells us to listen to it.
To do this is like to try to go on a diet while living at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We exist live in a buffet of sexual options – from the prostitutes on the streets to the movies we watch, the mall we shop in to the games we play, the ads on TV and websites to the popular books we are told to read, the enticement to sin sexually is literally everywhere. And the appetite grows. It’s like taking little bites of sugar everywhere we go – even without wanting to.
As a Christian, we know we have been delivered from sin and we hate the effects of it. The Word of God teaches against it. Our Christian elders and friends give warning. And the Holy Spirit inside of us is warning our conscience. But with the inundation of options all around us, the internet at home and in our pockets, and everyone in our culture cheering us on to express ourselves, live out our freedom, and trust our appetites to guide us to happiness.
And so we relent. Canada has completely relented to the idea that our appetites will guide us to happiness, and we have a completely messed up culture as a result. Did you know that biggest website in the world streamed 92 billion videos totally 4.6 billion hours of porn – just in 2016? Almost every adolescent boy and girl today has been exposed to explicit pornographic content – and this isn’t naked pictures – we’re talking about high definition and stylized videos of incest, violence and rape, of which 88% of porn videos include. Most have no blockers on their home or devices. And over a third of people my age and younger watch porn to educate themselves so they can mimic it with their partners. Pornography use is rampant at every age, not just young adults. This isn’t merely a male issue. A third of young women (25 and under) and a quarter of older women go looking at least once per month.
Two new things that are being reported recently as a result of continued porn use is what they are calling “sexual anorexia” which is basically a total loss of desire for romantic-sexual interactions with other people, and “porn-induced erectile dysfunction” meaning that even when with a partner they simply can’t get aroused by a real-live girl anymore. Porn use increases the chance of cheating on your spouse by 300%.
The slide of the out of control sexual appetite doesn’t have an end. There is never going to be enough because, like a potent drug, it causes major chemical dependency in the brain. And the appetite for sexual sin only gets darker and more evil. It doesn’t just stay at romantic novels or underwear models, but grows stronger until normal sex isn’t enough – then strange sex isn’t enough – then violent, abusive sex isn’t enough – and then merely watching isn’t enough, you want to act out what you have been watching.
And it barely even twinges the conscience anymore because you have now rewired your brain to consider the perverse, dangerous, and violent images you have been watching to be “normal”. Girls no longer know what modesty, love and romance looks or feels like. Boys have no idea how to respect, woo or patiently love just one girl. Now they believe in the fantasy world that pornography has fed them – and they want to live it out. Maybe you have done the same in your own life as you try to fit the person you are attracted to into a pornographic fantasy, or grow disappointed as the real person doesn’t perform like the person on screen. The real person is way less interesting than the fantasy. That’s an insanely confused version of sex designed by Satan to destroy you.
But this isn’t just about the epidemic of pornography and what we do when we are alone, but all that this out of control sexual appetite creates in our minds, hearts, families, churches and societies. It destroys intimacy and closeness. Friendship is ruined because everything is about sex. Superficiality and total selfishness is rampant. People don’t give themselves to each other, they use each other. Sexual sin is a massive force for harm.
What happens when you take the individual consequences of an out of control sexual appetite and multiply it by the size of a church, a city, a country, or the world? Not just you seeking out selfish ways to use people for your own appetites, but also those around you, and far beyond.
Pornography users have a lot of misinformation that gives them an excuse to come back. For example: It’s free so I don’t pay for it, so I’m not contributing to the bad parts. That’s not true. These sites get money for every click, whether you buy or not. That’s why it’s free. There are dozens of ways to make money of people that come to your website and around. Yes, you are generating income for these companies, allowing them to stay in business.
Another thing people say is that these women are well paid and look like they are enjoying it. The women are some of the most beautiful in the world – they could do anything — no one is making them do this. In truth, many of the women in pornography come from abusive homes and were often sexually abused as children. Some of them are victims of human trafficking who have been told to look good or they will be hurt or killed. Some got into the business after being recruited in their first year of college with the promise of lots of money and a thrilling lifestyle, but many tell the story of how no matter what they did the company wanted them to do more and more grotesque things. They had spent the money already and needed more, so they quell the shame and pain inside them with alcohol and drugs. Especially when people on their campus or family members see their pictures and videos. Some have committed suicide because of the shame and fear they have felt.
When they do want out, they can’t put any of this onto a resume so it has gaps and their professional reputation is shot. Whatever their career was – teacher, nurse, scientist – is ruined because of pornography. So they only have one place to turn – the porn industry. This industry promotes only the youngest women, so as they get older the only way to stay employed is to do more and more disgusting things, perpetuating the shame and fear and trapping them in the industry further. And then they are sent out to do interviews and trade fairs to tell everyone how happy they are. And that’s not even covering the massive psychological and spiritual damage done. Every time someone reads, clicks, or watches, they perpetuating this abusive industry.
But the damage of an out of control sexual appetite doesn’t end with the individual. Then we get the societal consequences like the spread of sexually transmitted diseases which over 70 percent of sexually active Canadians have. There’s the evil of sex trafficking, which is the kidnaping and sale of people for the purposes of prostituting them, and it is growing, funded and supported by the multi-billion dollar porn industry. We see the sexualisation of younger and younger people and the rise of child exploitation, pornography, and child sex rings. And of course we have the holocaust of the millions of abortions in North America lone which have nothing to do with the health of the child or the mother, but simply are the result of people who want the pleasure of sex without the consequences or responsibility of parenthood. Rape culture, divorce, fatherlessness… and I could go on.
Consider that when an industry or company is connected to terrible things like child-labour or environmental destruction most people freak out and refuse to buy from that store or support that industry. Why not this one? Because it’s an out of control appetite that the world supports without question. Just this week they tried to fly the Walk for Life flag down at Ottawa city hall and it was pulled down within hours. Just FYI, the Mayor had the LGBT Pride flag fly for the entirety of the Sochi Olympics. Why the difference? Different appetites.
The Gospel is the Answer
Verse 12 gives their first excuses, “All things are lawful for me…” they say. Here we see them throwing Paul’s words back in his face. He had come and taught them that people are not saved by religion, nor obedience to a set of laws, but are instead set free from having to follow a bunch of rules by the grace of God.
Every other religion said you have to do certain things to appease the gods. Give money, make war, pray for hours, reach ecstasies, gives sacrifices, spill your own blood, do good deeds, even horrible things like burn children to death. Only these things would make the gods do what you want them to do.
But the God of the Bible says we can never do enough to impress or please Him. There will never be enough good deeds to outweigh our sins. Instead, God sent Jesus to live a perfect life, doing exactly what God wanted, so He could take God’s wrath against sin in exchange for anyone who would believe in him. This freed us from the bonds of man-made religious laws that only served to manipulate us and make us feel either guilty or prideful.
And so they say to Paul, “But you said that since we’re Christians we don’t have to obey any laws! We can do whatever we want! We have freedom in Christ! You said God accepts us as we are and will never reject us no matter how much we mess up! And you said that we don’t need to follow any of the Jewish Laws either because we are under the new covenant. So we’re doing that!”
And Paul says, “Yes, you are free in Christ, but not everything is helpful. Yes, you are free in Christ, but these you are doing aren’t bringing you more freedom – they are dominating you. You are no longer free when you do these things, you are making yourself a slave again. ” You see that?
The Emptiness Trap
When we turn away from God’s design for our lives we will feel empty. That emptiness will create an appetite that will eventually become all consuming. We will gorge ourselves on all manner of things trying to fill that emptiness, to satisfy that appetite that can only be satisfied by being in a right relationship with God and others.
This is the trap. We feel God’s way is too constricting, too hard. Satan offers to satiate that appetite an easier way – through violence, gluttony, sexual sin, stealing – and it works for a moment, but what happens is that appetite grows. And as a Christian, after we have succumbed to temptation, we realize we have grieved the Holy Spirit, ruined our reputation, lost our reward, invited God’s discipline, made innocent people suffer for our selfishness, tainted our ministry and testimony, left a stumbling stone for those who would follow us… and that shame can either cause us to fall before God and ask for forgiveness and restoration – which He will give… or will drive us away from God, separating us from Him further, and our church, and our friends, and His Word, and His voice… causing our appetites to grow and grow because now we feel truly terrible.
Which, again, either causes us to turn to God or, in many cases, cause us to not want to feel anything. When we feel empty we’re willing to try anything – and when that doesn’t work we try hard not to feel anything. So we self-medicate, fall into destructive behaviours, and our life falls apart.
Maybe you’re not all the way down this road, but I promise, this is where unconfessed, unforgiven sin leads. To a destroyed, corrupt, hard, and calloused heart that refuses to feel.
The remedy is the Gospel. The Bible says we need to realize that we were not designed merely to fill our appetites. “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” Our body, our lives, are not given to us merely to pursue our own pleasures, but for God. Colossians 1:16 says that all things were created through Jesus and for Jesus, and that includes us. We will only find true fulfillment, joy, and peace when we realize that they are not found by us though this world – but in Him.
Verses 15-18 talk about the invisible, emotional and spiritual dangers of sexual sin, but we’ve covered a lot of that already.
The way we escape these out of control appetites is in verses 19-20 which say, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
This is the gospel condensed. We gave our bodies to sin and became salves to sin, but Jesus bought us back at a great price. We celebrate it every month at communion – that He gave His body and shed His blood in exchange for ours. He saves us to Himself. He makes us born again so we can live forever. He cleans us up so we can be temples of His Holy Spirit. But this was at the price of His life, freely given for all who would believe.
Our response to that amazing grace is threefold:
First, we need to acknowledge our sin and the danger of it. Sin isn’t fun or funny. It isn’t little. It creates spiritual death, no matter how small we think it is, and it’s destructive power is incredible. So we acknowledge that we are sinners, that we hate sin, repent from it, and ask God’s forgiveness of it by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Second, we accept that forgiveness and believe that we have been cleaned. It’s not because of any feeling we have or a tingle in our spine, but because of the agreement that God made with us because of the covenant of the blood of Jesus. If you repent and believe, you will be saved. If you ask forgiveness in His name, you will be forgiven. And from that point on we live as Christians. The Holy Spirit takes residence in our hearts and speaks to us in words that cannot be expressed.
And third, we glorify God in our body. In other words, we no longer live for ourselves, but trust that Jesus’ way is better. He is our Saviour and our Lord. When He says something is good, it is good. When He says something is dangerous, we avoid it. When He says go, we go. When He says stop, we stop. Jesus redeemed us, bought us back from death and Hell, so our bodies are no longer ours. They are His. And He can do with them as He pleases.
It is to this we appeal when we are tempted, when we face sin, and when our appetites get out of control.
We pray: “Jesus, this is sin and I know you hate it, and therefore I do too, and I want to avoid it. I accept that this has no more place in my life because I am yours. Help me to flee temptation as you taught me to pray. And Jesus, my body is yours. My mind, heart, and soul too. Do with them as You will. You gave me these appetites, so help me fulfil them your way, so you get the glory and I can experience more of you.”
Last week we started a new series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and I talked about the two principle players involved , that being Paul and the city of Corinth. The two things that I hope you walked away with last week was Paul’s passion for spreading the love of God found in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and how badly Corinth needed to hear it.
Corinth was basically the internet come to life. A huge amount of people from every nation, background and belief system, gathered in a city dedicated to spreading opinions and information (and misinformation), making money in commerce and manufacturing, religious ideas shouted from every temple and street corner, and a non-stop stream of sexual filth. Like I said: the internet, come to life.
Paul Has a Hard Time in Athens
This week we’re going to continue giving the back story to 1st Corinthians by talking about what was happening when the church was first planted. This will help us gain some appreciation for the relationship that Paul had with the church, the city, and (hopefully) establish some context for some of the things that Paul will say in his letter.
It was during Paul’s second missionary journey that he came into the city of Corinth for the first time, and was so struck by the place that he decided to stay for a year and a half. We’re going to spend most of our time today in Acts 18 today, but before we go there, I want you to turn back a page and take a look at where Paul had just been coming from – which was the city of Athens.
Athens was like Corinth in some of the ways we talked about last week: pagan and pretty messed up. But, while Corinth’s fascination was all forms of sex, Athens’ preoccupation was talking. There was nothing more that the people of Athens enjoyed more than listening to philosophers, teachers, lawyers and religious experts from around the world. And this town was full of religious opinions of every sort. Read Acts 17:16:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
The words “his spirit was provoked” are a strong word picture speaking of a sudden and violent emotion, a combination of anger and grief. It’s the Greek word from which we get our word “Paroxysm”. As he wandered through town he was deeply troubled by how lost these people were.
It’s not that they weren’t intelligent people. Athens was a university town, at one time the centre of the political, educational and philosophical universe. Four hundred years before it had been the home of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus. Now, however, it was a much small city of only ten-thousand, stuck trying to relive their glory days by spending their time doing not much more than arguing and philosophizing about the mysteries of the universe. They would generate a lot of heat – but very little light.
They cared more about talking than finding the truth. They had statues dedicated to every god in almost every religion under the sun but didn’t know the One, True God. Paul’s tour of town let him see just how lost they were.
Paul spent some days talking in synagogues and in the marketplace, trying to share the story of Jesus but met with very poor results. He had no partners in town, no fellow believers, no ministry assistants, and nothing he said or did was helping anyone learn anything more about Jesus.
“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18)
Read that with as much dripping condescension as you can muster. Such arrogant pride and hard hearts. Paul was one of the most intelligent, wisest, most skilled teachers in history, but their hearts were so hard and their ears so closed that all they heard was babbling.
But apparently his “babbling” was interesting enough to some people that they invited him to come and speak at the Areopagus at Mars Hill, the seat of the highest court and one of the most important lecture hall and discussion places in the world. The most significant conversations about law, philosophy, and religion were brought to these thirty people on this esteemed counsel. It wasn’t that they much cared about what Paul was saying, they were just interested in hearing something new.
“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (vs 21)
At least this was something. This was to be Paul’s moment in Athens. Surely this would lead to some hearts being changed and a church being formed. Paul preached a great apologetics sermon that day, one that has been studied by generations since. But it had almost no effect. Paul poured out his heart, soul, mind and strength before this crowd and almost nothing happened.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (vs 32-33)
A few people responded in faith, both men and women, but the rest scoffed him out of the building – and out of town. They believed no one sane would think that people come back from the dead and Paul stood there as this counsel of the highest intellectuals in the world laughed at him. A few wanted to hear him again – maybe out of genuine interest or maybe because they were bored.
Paul Comes to Corinth Exhausted
I tell you all this because I want you to realize how Paul was feeling when he came into Corinth the first time.
Prior to coming to Corinth Paul had faced a lot of discouragement. In Philipi his ministry had started strong, but then was nearly ruined by Jewish opposition and Paul ended up beaten with rods and thrown into jail. Then he went to Thessalonica where things went ok at first, but then more opposition arose who attacked the family that was hosting the church meetings. He left town and went to Berea but the troublemakers from Thessalonica followed him and caused even more trouble, and ran him out of town – alone.
Paul had entered Athens tired and discouraged, but after this huge disappointment, facing public rejection and embarrassment, he left Athens utterly exhausted. He was physically, emotionally and spiritually done and then he travelled alone for a long while until he reached Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 2:3 it says that when Paul was teaching in Corinth he was “…in weakness and in fear and much trembling…” He was done. He had none of his former fire left. He wasn’t the bold man standing before crowds and proclaiming the name of Jesus – he was utterly spent. His message wasn’t complex and intellectual, but simple and spoken from weak legs and trembling lips. But remember where he was – the internet come to life – surrounded by pagan temples, a tonne of false teaching, and crazy amounts of sin. I wonder what it must have been like for Paul when he stumbled into town. If Athens threw him into paroxysms, what must Corinth have done?
Oh, and by the way, Paul was totally broke too. No friends, no support, no energy, no money.
Aquila and Priscilla
Now, let’s turn to acts 18 and see what God does:
“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
How cool is that? Let me explain. Paul comes into town and has absolutely no money – but he does have some skills. He’s knows how to sew animal leather together to make tents and canopies. Paul needs some money for food and somewhere to stay, so his first stop is the local trade guild. In other words, he went to the union office and asked for a job. These folks were good at taking care of their own and found Paul a job right away.
In God’s providence, Paul’s tent-making job not only gave him a way to make ends meet but also introduced him to some like-minded people who would become life-long friends Aquila and Priscilla.
Aquila and Priscilla had been through some rough times too. They had been living in Rome when Emperor Claudius had unilaterally kicked all the Jewish people out of Rome in 49AD. They met Paul in Corinth two years later.
What happened in Rome was that Emperor Claudius was sick of the constant disturbances surrounding someone named “Chrestus”. A lot of scholars believe that this was a mangled spelling of the Latin word for Christ and that Claudius had gotten sick of the constant fighting between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues. So much so that he literally banished all of them from his city!
It’s an easy leap to thinking that Priscilla and Aquila were Christians who had been kicked out of Rome two years before and had decided to go to the big city of Corinth to make some money as tentmakers. When they came to work the next day they were likely just as surprised as Paul was that they had found a fellow believer in Jesus Christ!
God Wants People Together
Let’s just pause there for a second. It’s important that we notice something important here in the life of Paul, because it tells us something about our own lives and how to get through the seasons that God sometimes puts us through.
I know you know that sometimes God puts us through some pretty difficult stuff. Paul went through all kinds of hard things during his missionary travels. This is not an exception to the rule, but is standard operating procedure for the life of a believer. All of God’s followers will go through some tough times – and that’s part of God’s plan.
Sometimes those difficult things will come from inside us as we battle with temptations, doubts, fears, depression, anxiety, or other mental and emotional issues. Sometimes difficult things will happen to us out of the blue, like a sudden death, tragedy, illness, or natural disaster. Sometimes we bring hard times on ourselves through our own actions; as a result of our own sinful behaviour or are simply a result of the choices we’ve made. And sometimes trouble comes from other people sinning against us through emotional, physical, or mental abuse, being treated unjustly, lied to, or forgotten.
All these things happened to Paul and other faithful followers of God. A lot of theologians believe Paul had a natural predisposition towards depression, and we know of many others in scripture who suffered the same way. He faced shipwrecks and famines that he had no power over, and often found himself facing struggles that he brought on himself through his own decisions. And of course, he faced persecution and abuse from many people – and was often forgotten or betrayed by his fellow ministry workers.
This is normal. Jesus Himself, the One whom we are to follow and pattern our lives after, went through some incredibly difficult times too – on all these levels. Temptation was His constant companion and we know He had times of deep sadness. He lived through tragedies and disasters. The decisions He made often brought Him more and more trouble and made Him more enemies. And we certainly know that He was abused by others and abandoned by those closest to Him.
Sometimes, this is what the life of a believer looks like – a life of suffering. Sometimes God puts us through seasons in our life where everything gets darker and harder and more painful. So what are we to do?
What did the faithful of God do? What did Jesus do? What did Paul do? He did two things. He kept talking to Jesus and He kept walking with other people. The reason that Paul was alone in Athens was because he got run out of town and left Silas and Timothy to take care of the brand new church he had just planted. He would have done it himself, but his presence was causing more harm than good, so he left.
His time alone clearly had a difficult effect on Him. His strength failed more quickly and his energy became low. He preached in Athens, but had no effect, and no one to share the experience with. When he came to Corinth he was totally wrecked – but what did God do?
God miraculously provided Paul with a couple of Christians to talk to – in the middle of Corinth! There were no Christian churches in Corinth, and the Apostle Paul had never been there! These three believers coming together was no coincidence. It was the Holy Spirit of God drawing His people together to care for one another.
Paul kept praying and talking to Jesus, but he wasn’t meant to be alone and God knew it, so He worked it out, two years before, that there would be a couple of Christians in Corinth waiting for Paul to show up during a very low period in his life.
We all need people. We all need the church. When the author of Hebrews writes to the believers who were going through great persecution he says:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25)
Some people’s response to stress is to tell the world to go away. They drop their friendships, stop going to church, avoid deep conversations and refuse invitations to meet. But that is a trap of the devil. God knows we need one another, which is why He provided Aquila and Priscila for the exhausted, discouraged and lonely Apostle Paul – and provided Paul for the hurting and spiritual lonely Aquila and Priscila.
Once church father named Ignatius says,
“When ye frequently, and in numbers meet together, the powers of Satan are overthrown, and his mischief is neutralized by your likemindedness in the faith.”
Satan wants to get you alone, God wants you to meet together regularly with fellow believers! All Christians are a member of the body of Christ, and it is unhealthy for us to amputate ourselves from the body!
This theme continues as we read Acts 18. We are going to see opposition pop up, and then God provide more and more people to partner with Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, to keep their spirits up and the Gospel message flowing through Corinth.
More Opposition to the Gospel
“When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.” (Acts 18:5)
Another translation says that when Silas and Timothy arrived, it gave Paul the chance to “devote himself exclusively to preaching”. We can already see Paul’s strength coming back.
He took some time to rest and work with his new friends, preaching some Saturdays at the local synagogue, but when Silas and Timothy came to town, Paul was finally ready to go again. His friends had helped him and now he had even more support. And his support system was even greater than just those around him since Silas and Timothy had likely brought Paul some money from the other churches so he could devote his full time to preaching. The wind was at Paul’s back now and He was ready to go and buckled down to convince the local synagogue that Jesus really was the Messiah – but it wasn’t going to go well.
“And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 18:6)
As usual, the stubborn Jewish leaders wouldn’t listen and stirred up trouble against Paul. They started to abuse him verbally, and maybe even physically.
Can you imagine the flashbacks Paul must have had? “Oh no… this is Philipi and Thessalonica and Berea all over again!” His heart starts to beat hard, fear begins to grip him, and – based on what we are about to read – I think Paul was about to quit. He was done.
He had a few Christian friends around, but once again he was the focal point of trouble for them. People were getting hurt and his preaching was the reason. How much more could he take? But keep reading and see what God does: “And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
“And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:7-11)
When Paul was at his weakest, utterly dependent on God’s Spirit to do all the work, God broke forth in Corinth! Titius Justus gets saved and just happens to have a great big house, likely an entire compound, right next to the synagogue. Then, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue that had just kicked Paul out, and a very influential man, sucks up his pride, gets saved and starts coming to church at Titius’ house. That’s a huge win! But not just Crispus, his entire household! The Christian church and Paul’s support system is really starting to grow now, but Paul isn’t seeing it.
Next, we read that the Corinthians start to hear about Paul’s message and start to flock to this new church in town and listen to Paul teach about Jesus. Paul is steal preaching from great weakness, keeping it simple, but after he says amen and looks up to see all the new people, Paul isn’t excited about this growth – he’s going home to Priscilla and Aquila’s house terrified. Anxiety wracks his mind. His health is failing. The encouragements of his friends aren’t helping. He’s ready to bug out. Along with all this growth is a lot of opposition from the Jewish synagogue next door, and Paul’s very worried. Soon that controversy would reach the ears of the proconsul Gallio, the leader of the whole province of Achaia.
Not Just People, But God
And here we learn our second lesson today. We don’t just need people – we need God. You likely know the feeling of being surrounded by people that love you, but feeling sad and alone anyway. Maybe you even know the feeling of having success in life and work, but feeling terrified that it will all come crashing down around your ears.
Paul knew that feeling, which is why God showed up like he did. Paul didn’t just need people in his life, he needed the voice of God. We all need both, don’t we? And yet, some of us fight against one or the other – or both!
We fight against our need for others and try to take on the world alone, and that sets us up for all kinds of difficulty, so God tells us to make sure that we are in a relationship with others. Alternatively, sometimes we even fight against our need for God. Our whole being cries out that that there is something bigger than us in this world and we need something greater than ourselves to make it through, but for some reason we refuse to get down on our knees and admit we need Him.
We refuse to ask God for help believing we must provide for ourselves. We refuse to read the Bible thinking that we have all the wisdom we need to make decisions. We refuse to submit to the Lordship of Jesus because we think we know better than Him. Our souls say we must yield, but we don’t. Why? Pride. Selfishness. Our love of sin.
But we are designed for both. We need to love both vertically and horizontally. We need to love God and be loved by Him. And we need to love others and be loved by them. That’s the power of being part of a good, Christian church family. We are a people who have committed to love vertically and horizontally: to love god and each other.
I believe that’s why God appeared to Paul in that vision. He wasn’t going to hear it any other way. It reminds me of another prophet that was overwhelmed with his job – a young man named Joshua. God said to him something very similar to what Paul heard:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
God message to Paul, Joshua, and all of us is the same. You need not fear because you are not alone. I’m with you wherever you go.
Everyone needs to hear this, though precious few will accept it. Perhaps today we need it more than ever.
- Marriages and families are crumbling to adultery and divorce.
- Fatherlessness is epidemic.
- The proliferation of materialism and pornography has created a culture of shallow people who no longer have deep relationships.
- Men are afraid of having deep, male friendships for fear of being labelled as weak or gay.
- Men can’t have friendships with children for fear of being labeled as pedophiles.
- Women are afraid of other women out of fear of being betrayed.
- Young people no longer respect and seek wisdom from their elders, and older people have written off the next generation.
- Men and women, both young and old, because of the gender wars of feminism and chauvinism, have almost lost the ability to talk to one another.
- And most of us, even self-proclaimed Christians, have written off God and rarely speak to Him, listen to His Spirit speaking to our hearts, or read the book He wrote for us.
We have a deep need for God and each other and very few are willing to take the risk to build those relationships. But we need to.
God Secures Safe Passage for the Gospel
Let me close with the end of the story of the planting of the church in Corinth. Let’s read the last few verses together, starting in verse 12:
“But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.’ But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ And he drove them from the tribunal. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.” (Acts 18:12-17)
What happened? God was at work again. Gallio’s ruling that Paul’s planting of a Christian church wasn’t breaking Roman Law stood as the precedent for the next ten years. God, through all this trouble at this little church in Corinth, and all of Paul’s heartache, was securing a strong foundation for the Christian church to spread all over the Roman Empire. Christianity, from that point on, would be considered a sect of Judaism and protected under Roman Law. Had Gallio found Paul guilty, every governor in every province where the missionaries would go would be under arrest for being Christians. Instead, God used this controversy to secure safe passage for the global missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the next decade.
So there’s my closing points today. When Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) this is what he meant. You will have trouble and you need help from God and others to get through it! Even the troubles we face will be used for God’s glory and the building of His kingdom. And even in those troubles God will bring people together and bring more people to Him. That’s what God does and I encourage you from the bottom of my heart to relent to how God does things.
- Accept that this world has trouble, but also accept that God doesn’t want you to face that trouble alone!
- Embrace the community of believers around you.
- Learn to learn to love and depend others.
- Meet often in each other’s homes and take care of one another.
And as we do all of that, let us always stay in faithful contact with Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the One who saves us and brings us into relationship with God and others.
Welcome to the first week of our series on 1st Corinthians! I’ve been really excited to start this series for two reasons. First, I really enjoy teaching books of the bible, and second, because I believe that the content of this series is going to be not only extremely interesting, but also very helpful.
As we go through this book and study its context and background you are going to see a lot of echoes of the present. Some people accuse the Bible of being an old, complicated, out of touch book for super-religious people and theologians locked in monastic towers, unable to speak to the issues and trials of modern life — but that’s an impossible conclusion to come to when we take the time to read and study it. And that truth is exemplified in 1st Corinthians.
The society that the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are the same issues we face today. The world in which they lived in is eerily similar to our world today. Sometimes, as a preacher, I have to dig a little deeper to find the application for our life today – but that won’t be the case for 1st Corinthians. It’s blatantly obvious in every chapter.
But before we get into our study of the book itself, it’s really important that we get some context.
The Apostle Paul
The first think you need to know about 1st Corinthians is that it is a letter written from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and 20 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Here’s a quick bio on the author:
Paul, who was also known as Saul of Tarsus, was a Jewish man born in the city of Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman Province of Cilicia. He was a Jewish man, but he had Roman citizenship, which explains why he went by two names (Acts 22:3). He was born as the Hebrew Saul (SHAAL) and then later when he became a missionary to the gentiles, he dropped the Jewish name and went by his Roman name PAULUS.
Saul had the best of both worlds education-wise. His parents allowed him to be trained in the Greek education system, but at home he was also taught the importance of his Jewish heritage and the Torah. He was even taught how to work with his hands, sewing animal skins together to make tents. He describes himself in Philippians 3:5-6 as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
At some point in Saul’s life he had embraced his Jewish heritage and found that he had a deep love for the Law of Moses, and found his way into being trained as a Pharisee – the keepers of the Law. Saul quickly rose to the top of the class and was taken for training under the very well respected teacher, Gamaliel – the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important scholars in Jewish history. He is closely associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud – the foundational commentaries on Jewish Law and History. These werethe guiding documents for the Pharisees, a group dedicated to obedience not only to the Law of Moses, but also the Oral Laws and commentaries written in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Pharisees were the most trained, most hard-core religious people in the Jewish world – and young Saul was thriving under their training, setting himself apart as a man of extremely zealous passion for keeping God’s Word.
When Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Saul wasn’t even a glimmer in his father’s eye yet, and was about 25 years old when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus would have been teaching in Galilee while Saul was growing up and being trained by Gamaliel and the school for Pharisees in Jerusalem.
With all the confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees, especially during Passion Week, there is no doubt that Saul knew about Jesus’ teaching – and had learned to hate Him as much as the rest of the Pharisees did. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Saul was in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus was, possibly even in attendance with the Sanhedrin crowd that condemned Him to death.
As the Christian church started to grow after the resurrection of Jesus, Saul’s hatred of the church was growing as well. The leaders of this break-away group, called the Apostles, were following in the footsteps of their leader and stirring up all kinds of trouble, winning converts away from the Pharisees and teaching that this Galilean carpenter from Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah, the Christ! Saul, an expert in the Law and Prophets, a Pharisee of Pharisees, hated these people who called themselves “The Way”. There was only one way, his way!
Paul the Hunter of Christians
The first introduction we get to the young man Saul comes in Acts 7 at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. After Stephen had spoken about Jesus and accused this group of being stubborn and blind to the truth, it says in verse 54,
“Now when they [The Pharisees and the rest of the Sanhedrin] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
The stoning of Stephen was the dam-bursting event that allowed all the pent-up hatred against Christians to finally be let loose. It was open season on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the man they wanted in charge of rounding them up for imprisonment, trial and death was Saul, their brightest, most popular, and most zealous member.
Saul spent about a year actively hunting, imprisoning, condemning and probably even killing Christians. He also expanded his hunt far beyond the city of Jerusalem. We read the next chapter of Saul’s story in Acts 9:1-6, and find Saul travelling hundreds of kilometers in his pursuit of the followers of Jesus:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
In that single moment Jesus sends Saul’s whole world crashing down around him. Jesus literally stops Saul in his tracks and confronts him with his hatred, pride and sins. Saul gets up, blinded, and spends three days without eating or drinking, trying to absorb this new reality.
Then God sends a Christian named Ananias to help him, teach him, heal his blindness, bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to baptize him into the Christin faith. Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” and gently ushers him into this new world of faith in Jesus Christ.
After that meeting Saul spent some time telling the Jews in the synagogues of Damascus what had happened to him, but wasn’t well received by anyone. He left Damascus and spent a few years in solitude, away from the Pharisees, away from Christians, away from everyone, wandering Arabia in an extended time of reflection, prayer, study, and meditation on all that had happened. He was forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Christians he had been hunting, and it took a long while. He needed to humble himself before Jesus, ask forgiveness and do some learning. He was no longer the darling of Jerusalem, the biggest man on campus, but simply a new follower of Jesus Christ, the one who saved him even though he had been the greatest enemy of His followers.
Fast-forward the story a little: After his time away Saul went to Jerusalem to talk to the Apostles and tell them that Jesus had chosen him to be an apostle too. The apostles were wary at first, but willing to listen. The Jews, however, were angry that their greatest weapon had turned on them and tried to kill Saul.
The Apostles decided send him back to Tarsus to lay low for a while. He stayed in Tarsus teaching about Jesus for about 10 years before the apostles sent Barnabas came and got him so they could work together on a mission trip to spread the gospel to new places while collecting funds to help people during a time of great famine.
Saul’s time with Barnabas would set the pattern for the rest of his life. His whole world had been changed by meeting Jesus Christ and He wanted everyone in the world to know about it. His Christian life would be lived on the road as a missionary to the gentiles. Yes, he still loved the Jews, and spent time telling them about Jesus too, but his upbringing, education, training, and passions made him a perfect missionary to non-Jewish people.
His first missionary journey would take three years, from 46-49 AD. His second missionary journey would take two years, from 50-52 AD. It was on this second journey that Saul, who was now going by Paul, would visit Corinth for the first time and stay for 1 and a half years.
These missions cost Paul much. His love for Jesus, the Gospel and His church gave Paul much heartache as he watched partners desert him and the churches he planted get attacked and fall into believing lies about him and Jesus. It took a toll on his body as well as he faced beatings, imprisonment, stoning, lashes, shipwrecks, starvation, and more. But nothing would stop him from telling everyone he could about the love and forgiveness he’d found in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
It was during his third journey, as he was staying in Ephesus for two years, that he wrote his letters to the Corinthians after receiving some news about their troubles.
The City of Corinth
Ok, so that’s some backstory for the man who wrote the letter, now let’s work on a little of the backstory for the city of Corinth. I told you before that the world the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are very similar to the issues we face today; let me explain what I mean.
To live in the city of Corinth was to live in the coolest city in the world. This was the newest, trendiest, most modern, exciting and wealthiest town around. It had been destroyed a couple hundred years before, but was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46BC and quickly regained its prominence. By 27 BC (only 80 years before Paul got there) it had been named the capital of the province and by the first century had cemented its place as the most influential commercial centre, and an important manufacturing centre in Greece.
Their success came from their location. The city was a harbour town, located on a little strip of land that connected mainland Greece and Achaia. The weather often made it too dangerous to go around the whole of the rest of the land, so the Corinthians had a system where they would place ships on large wooden platforms and drag them across a stone road to drop them on the other side. Today they’ve simplified the process by digging a huge canal.
Corinth was a brand new (or rather refurbished) city with lots of money, people and things to do. Scholars estimate that the population of Corinth during the time of the apostles was somewhere between 500,000-700,000 people including Roman citizens, Greeks, foreigners and slaves. People would come from all around the world to witness the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in their prominence.
When you think of Corinth, think of a twenty-first century “inner city” like downtown Toronto; an overcrowded, ethnically diverse, materialistic, urban concentration of people, bursting with upper-class professionals and down-and-out street dwellers. And just like our inner cities today, it was full of opportunities to sin.
Unlike today, however, all their activities were masked it all with a veneer of religion. Corinth had as many temples and places of worship as downtown Toronto has Tim Hortons’! There was a god and a temple for everyone. As a strong commercial centre they drew people from everywhere. You could worship the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece all at once – or even head to the Jewish Synagogue.
Corinth was a religious, hedonistic, self-indulgent, decedent city, full to the brim with people, money, commercialism and moral decadence, but they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that Plato used the term “Corinthian girl” as shorthand to refer to prostitution and the rest of the ancient world would describe sex-obsessed, promiscuous people as “living like Corinthians”.
One place that everybody went (except the Jews of course) was one of the most famous temples in the ancient world: the Temple of Aphrodite, which stood high near the rim of the mountains so everyone could see it from the harbour. Whether you lived there, was a visiting tourist, or simply a sailor waiting for his ship to make the journey across the road, everyone – regardless of their personal, religious convictions worshipped at the Temple of Aphrodite.
When you think of Corinth, think of it as all the worst parts of the internet coming to life – and the Temple of Aphrodite was pornography central. This cult was dedicated to the glorification of sex. Some scholars believe they had as many as thousand girls kept there as consecrated priestesses, or sacred sex workers, who would come in great, ritualistic processions, dressed in fine clothes and crowns on their heads, to excite the crowds of men so they could make their choice, throw money into the collection or not, and take the temple priestess to have sex as an act of worship to the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and fertility, Aphrodite. Some scholars believe that it was law in the land that every woman who lived in the city had to take their turn as priestesses in the temple, whether they wanted to or not. (Herodotus)
In the centre of town, for the even more perverse, stood the Temple of Apollo which also glorified sex, but this time it wasn’t with women, but with men and boys. Corinth was a monument to immorality of every kind. Slavery, greed, the pursuit of power, paganism and sexual immorality drove the economy and lifestyle of all the lived there.
Another internet-like thing was the proliferation of teachings, opinions and pseudo-intellectual nonsense that streamed through town. Throughout Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read about four things that the Corinthian church wanted more than anything: “Spirituality”, “Wisdom”, “Knowledge” and “Power”, and though Paul taught that all these things were found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, God wasn’t working fast enough – or in the way they wanted Him to – and they were falling into their old habits to find it.
The celebrated Greek philosophers and teachers that everyone in town flocked to listen to, called Sophists, told everyone in town that to obtain super-spirituality, and great wisdom, knowledge and power, what they must do is separate their mind from their body by seeking out the biggest, wildest, most ecstatic experiences that they could. The crazier they got, the greater the physical pain or pleasure, the more insane the experimentation, the wilder the experience, the closer they would be to the gods.
This was the mindset in Corinth when Paul came to town in 51 AD. (Acts 18)
Parallels of Today
Can you see any parallels to today? It’s not too hard is it? When Paul walked into Corinth 2000 years ago he may as well have been walking into any modern day city in North America. The society around us is just as obsessed with money, power, trendiness, and sexual experiences as they were then. And our church, and the church in North America, is faced with the same temptations as they were.
The Corinthians needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were utterly lost in their sin and were desperate to hear what Paul was saying about a new way of salvation. We’ll cover the story next week, but while the Jews argued with Paul, the gentiles of the city flocked to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Their hearts were full of guilt and shame, and hearing about salvation through Jesus must have been like getting a breath of fresh air or a clean drink of water while living in a garbage dump.
But even though they readily embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that didn’t mean their troubles were over. They were still very new Christians and were constantly surrounded by opportunities to compromise their faith and morality. They were bombarded by temptations to try to be cool, to follow the latest trends, to seek out spiritual experiences, to give in to physical pleasures, and to live for themselves rather than others.
There were Jewish and pagan teachers who came into their church and made a lot of sense to them, but were trying to pull them away from faith in Jesus and into pagan or Jewish worship practices instead. They were told that they either needed to follow the Law of Moses completely, or that since they were saved by Jesus and that they were new, spiritual creatures, they could do whatever they want with their bodies. They’d either be forgiven or it didn’t matter to God anyway. This was extremely confusing and very tempting to them!
That’s where Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes in (1 Cor 1:1-2). This church that Paul had spent a year and a half planting and caring for was falling apart. As he was staying in Ephesus, he started to receive news that things were going badly. First came a delegation of men sent to bring Paul a list of questions and to talk him into coming to Corinth to fix things. Then came some people from a woman named Chloe’s house who came to tell him even more problems.
And all of these various thoughts, teachings and temptations were causing a huge division in the church. Some people wanted to go with what Paul had said, others wanted to listen to the new teachings, some wanted to go back to the Law of Moses, while others wanted to incorporate some of the things from the temples of Aphrodite and Apollos into the church. No one knew what was best anymore, everyone wanted their own way, and no one was getting along.
Paul was stuck in Ephesus, but to help in the meantime, he wrote some letters – four in fact. We don’t have the first or the third letter – they were lost, but we do have the second and fourth – we call them first and second Corinthians in our Bibles.
These letters are written to a confused church who wants to obey God and love each other, but are living in morally chaotic land full of voices that are telling them a thousand different things. They need some truth and so they write to their Apostle for answers.
So that’s the first part of the introduction to Corinthians and we’ll leave it there for this week. What I want you to do before we come back next week is to read 1st Corinthians all the way through. It’s only 16 chapters, so that’s only a little over two chapters per day. As you read, I want you to keep what we’ve talked about today in mind – Paul’s passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the context in which the Corinthian church was living.
You’ll notice as you read that Paul keeps coming back to that: the truth of the Gospel, the importance of living in the love of Jesus, and all the implications that has for our daily life.