The Apostle Paul
A lot of us are like those two followers walking down the road to Emmaus. They start out, perplexed, anxious, disappointed in how things have turned out, confused about God’s plan, talking to one another about things they don’t understand, and hoping that if they keep walking away, that somehow they will leave their problems behind them. They wanted God to solve their problems and make them happy, but somehow that wasn’t God’s plan. So they’re disappointed with God, with Jesus, and are walking away.
Some are like those two when they’re a little farther down the road when, even though Jesus is walking alongside them, even talking to them, they don’t recognize Him or His presence. They are believers, but because of their sin, doubt, fear, or pride – because their focus is on themselves and their troubles – are blind to the presence of Jesus, unable to see, hear, or understand what He’s saying. Even though Jesus offers His word and an explanation of the entire story from beginning to end, they don’t get it because their hearts are darkened to Him.
And then there are those who have had that “aha” moment with Jesus, where they’ve finally figured out who Jesus is, recognize His person and His power, realize He is the one that the whole Bible is talking about, and whose hearts burn within them to know more. In the story in Luke, once Jesus leaves them, they jump up and run back to the city of Jerusalem so they can find others to share their story of hope with.
Everyone is somewhere on this path.
Paul and Corinth
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 15:1-21. This passage is written by the Apostle Paul, a man who walked every part of that path with more intensity than any of us will ever experience. Paul is mostly known as a dedicated missionary of the gospel of Jesus who travelled all around the ancient world preaching, teaching, and planting churches in the name of Jesus. Paul was not always a missionary though. Paul wasn’t even his birth name. When he was born he was Saul, the son of a strict Jewish family who were also Roman citizens. When he was young he likely not only studied under a rabbi but also attended Greek school at the same time. Then, in his teens, moved to Jerusalem where he was given the chance to study under one of the most famous Jewish teachers of all time, Gamaliel. Paul eventually becomes a Pharisee – the strictest and most hard-core followers of the Law of Moses. And Saul was the top of his class. He was the most hard-core of the hard-core. It was the Pharisees that spent the most time antagonizing and attacking Jesus and Saul was most likely in Jerusalem when Jesus was there. It’s very likely that the two of them crossed paths, with Paul on the side of the Pharisees, not Jesus.
We are first introduced to Saul as a young man of around 20 or 30 years old, holding the clothes for an angry mob that were stoning the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen. Saul hated Jesus and he hated Christians. He hated Jesus and his followers so much that he made it his personal mission to destroy them. He saw Jesus as a condemned and crucified blasphemer and anyone who believed in Him as worthy of the same punishment.
Acts 8:3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” He likely had his hand in the suffering and death of many Christians. Saul was a powerful, intelligent, influential, man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. Until Jesus did.
Jesus didn’t come walking beside him though. There was no gentle invitation. Instead, as Saul was headed into another town to rout out the Christians, Jesus blasted a light from heaven, knocked Saul to the ground, and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. Not “my followers”, but “me”. Saul spent three days, blind and trembling. He couldn’t eat or drink. His whole life was turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew was wrong.
A few days later Jesus sends one of his followers, Ananias to cure Saul’s blindness and baptize him as a new believer. Over the next days and years, Saul would reorient everything he had ever been taught and realize it all pointed to Jesus. He had memorized the whole Old Testament and suddenly everything he thought he knew was wrong – but those scriptures and prophecies started to make a lot more sense. Jesus walked with Him and explained the scriptures, just as He did to those followers on the road to Emmaus. Paul meditated, prayed, and spent time talking and listening to Jesus until He had that “aha” moment about God’s upside-down kingdom. The crucified Lord made sense. The gospel made sense. The life of Jesus made sense. God as a suffering servant made sense. The only thing that didn’t make sense was why Jesus, the one who he hated so much, would save him. Why would Jesus show love to the one associated with the people who got Him crucified, and who had tried to destroy His people! Saul never forgot that amazing grace. So he changed his name to Paul and took that message to as many people as he possibly could – suffering every injustice and pain imaginable so more people could hear.
So that’s the author of our passage today. Now, consider the audience. Paul was writing to the Corinthians, a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was a town full of pagan idols, temples, and activities. It was a cosmopolitan, port town with lots of money and people. Paul came into this town a bit of a wreck. He had some bad experiences on the road and when he got to Corinth he was almost ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But Corinth accepted him, listened to his simple messages, and a church was formed. And they were so excited too! Imagine living your whole life on the Las Vegas strip, surrounded by sin and lies and temptation, but add to that believing that the gods you worship are fickle, angry, at war with each other, even easily bribed. It is a life out of control. But then you hear the Gospel of Jesus. That there is One God above all and He loves you, accepts you, and wants to save you. That this God didn’t just love a certain group of people, but even loved messed up pagans like you, and was willing to not only save you from hell, but change your life here and now, to give you a hope and a purpose, and affect your life so utterly that you could put away all the garbage in your life and live with Him as your one God, through whom you would find true peace and joy.
Corinth was a city of darkness and Jesus came to them like a beam of light. Corinth was a land of spiritual thirst and Jesus came to them as the one who quenched that thirst.
But Paul had to move on to plant other churches, and it wasn’t long until the darkness crept into the church and started to corrupt it. They started letting pagan worship practices come in. They started arguing with one another. They fought and even sued one another. Then came the sexual temptations and drunkenness where people were using the freedom of the gospel to excuse all kinds of depravity, even worse than the pagan temples – and they were bad. Then the other side of the church overcorrected and started banning everyone from doing almost anything – no marriage, no meat, no holidays, no nothing. It wasn’t long until they started letting false teachers take the pulpit, men who would deny the resurrection of Jesus and draw people away. The church, in quite short order, became a mess of compromise, division, and corruption. Paul heard about this and though he couldn’t leave the church where he was, he wrote a letter to them. We call this letter 1st Corinthians.
The passage I’m about to read is in chapter 15. Paul has already been writing about how their sin was destroying the joy and peace they once had in Jesus, but he was building to something. In Chapter 12 he tells them that under Jesus they shouldn’t be divided but united – and not in a boring, cookie-cutter, sameness, but in appreciation of their differences. In Chapter 13 he tells them that the only way to do this is by letting the entire motive for everything they do be love. In Chapter 14 he gives more examples, but then in Chapter 15, right before he closes his letter, he tells them how, and why, they should take all this so seriously.
Why should they fight temptation? Why should they humble themselves and seek unity? Why should they study the Bible and get their theology and practice right? Why choose a life of humility, sacrifice, and temperance when all around them were opportunities for self-aggrandizement, power, and pleasure? And even if they wanted to, how could this wreck of a church actually come back to Jesus? Surely He was done with them. Surely they were too far gone.
But Paul remembers his own story, and how much it mirrored theirs. If anyone was “too far gone” it was him. And he knows that the amazing grace of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ, has the power to utterly and completely change lives. The same power that rose Jesus from the dead, that turned him from Saul to Paul, was available to them. The hope and power they knew at first wasn’t gone, it was still there.
How could they access it? By remembering what happened on day one when Paul first arrived and preached that first message. By going back to what they first believed. By dumping all the garbage that had come up in their lives, their homes, their relationships, their church, their city, and their nation – and by getting back to the foundation of their faith. By seeing their sin for what it was, the ploy of the enemy to draw them away from Jesus toward their previous, hopeless, shame-filled life. To turn away from the mess that Jesus had saved them from and back toward Jesus. They had already been saved by Jesus, empowered by God, and had the presence of the Holy Spirit – but they had forgotten. All they had to do was remember.
And so Paul says in Chapter 15:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”
The Resurrection Is EVERYTHING
I saw an article online this week where BBC radio called 2000 people to ask them about their beliefs about Christianity for a program they were putting on Palm Sunday in 2017. They discovered that only 35% of the people that called themselves Christians believe the biblical account of the resurrection of Jesus, and only 61% even believed in life after death. Then what do they believe? Why are they even calling themselves Christians? And Canada isn’t so different in their statistics. Western Christianity is not so different from the Corinthian church 2000 years ago. We are just as affected by our culture, just as forgetful.
In our world today we sometimes forget why the Christian church exists. Some people think it’s here as a place to get together as a community once a week for some fun and support. Others see it as a place where morality is taught so kids can know right and wrong. Others see it as a political organization, a motivated group gathered to promote either conservative or liberal values, depending on whether you prefer talking about the economy or social justice. Some people see the church as a way to network so they can make friends and business partnerships. Others see the church as the keepers of culture and tradition, a place to be married and buried, maybe visited on important holidays, but not really something that affects daily life. Others see it as a place for idiots and rubes to get another injection of blind-hope and be duped out of their money by corrupt leaders.
Why do we exist? Why are we here today? Why are we making a big deal of this thing we call Easter, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is it tradition? Is it just part of our culture? Is it to make some kind of allegorical point about sacrifice? Is it just an excuse to get together, sing some songs, think big thoughts, and eat some treats?
No, the Christian church exists to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re here. Everything else – our community work, good deeds, hospitals, orphanages, music, art, education, traditions, everything, is meaningless without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do good works so people will see the risen Jesus. We open hospitals and orphanages and schools to give mercy and sacrificial care to needy people because Jesus has shown mercy to us when we had need, and so we can share the gospel with them, telling them that they don’t just need medicine and a home, but the healing of their souls. We create masterpieces of music and art not merely to celebrate the death of Jesus, but because of His resurrection. His death is only worth painting in the light of His resurrection. Otherwise, the story isn’t one of victory, but tragedy.
As Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the resurrection isn’t real, if we’re just here for pancakes and some nice music, to read from a book full of lies and prophecies that never came true, to sing songs about a made up fiction, and to go home in the same condition in which we came – no closer to God, no more holy, no more meaning, no more hope – because the resurrection didn’t happen, then we are above all most to be pitied.
If Jesus isn’t alive, then there is no answer to sin, no meaning to our suffering, and we’re all doomed to either oblivion or hell. If Jesus isn’t alive, then sin and death have won. If Jesus isn’t alive, then everyone who has ever died is either gone forever into a meaningless void or has been doomed to hell because they died still condemned, because their faith was in the wrong person. If Jesus isn’t alive, and all this church has to offer is some false “hope in this life only”, and a few moral nuggets that you can take or leave, then what’s the point? Why live like a Christian if Jesus is dead?
Jay Adams defined Christian Preaching as “preaching that will get you thrown out of a synagogue or mosque.” Because for a message to be a Christian message, it must say something about Jesus that no one else says. A message that is not only distinct but radical and offensive to those who don’t believe it. A Christian life, a life lived in the light of the resurrection cannot look like a pagan life, a Buddhist life, a secular life. Our beliefs are not interchangeable. For a Christian life, and Christian message to be Christian, it must show that Jesus is unlike anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus is more than telling people to be good and moral and honest. It’s more than showing people how to do life. It’s more than learning bible verses that look good on mugs and pillows and tattoos. It is about finding our sufficiency in Jesus because Jesus is the only one who lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, and then rose again after being buried in a tomb, conquering sin and death, showing Himself to hundreds of witnesses, and creating a movement where so many people have met Him – have personally met the risen Lord – that they are willing to give everything, even to die, to share the message of salvation with others .
The Resurrection is E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
This is why it is so utterly heartbreaking and aggravating to see Christians and churches that miss the point, who forget about living in the light of the resurrection so they can concentrate on other things. It’s like watching someone brag about how great their house looks, while it’s on fire. It’s like hearing someone brag about getting a new stereo in a car that doesn’t have an engine or wheels. It’s like someone saying how attractive their girlfriend is, even though it’s a corpse they covered in make-up and propped up against a wall. Christianity without the resurrection isn’t just pointless, it’s bizarre, even disgusting. It brings no glory to God and offers no hope to anyone. It’s an exercise is religious futility.
This is also why it’s so painful for us to see a life lived without Jesus, good or bad. Christians, you know this feeling. You know what it’s like to see someone that is either utterly wasting away because of their slavery to sin, or who have such wonderful gifts but are only using them for their own glory. Or, perhaps worse, you know what it’s like to watch a person grow up in church, learn all the lingo, go through the motions of attending Sunday School, saying the prayer of salvation and getting baptized – but then to realize their faith had no roots, and they never did know Jesus. They head into high school or college and before long you realize that it was all pretending.
Why does that hurt so much? If the point of Christianity was about giving some moral lessons and traditions, then what more can you ask? But if Christianity means having a living, dynamic relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ – then seeing people enslaved to sin, living an empty, secularly successful life, or knowing people who only pretended to be believers – is soul-crushing. Why? Because everything they do is still soaked in sin.
We see a life full of good things – but know that since they didn’t know the resurrected Jesus, they died under the curse and went to Hell. What a heartbreaking waste. We look at their impact, the followers they gather, the children they have, the work they do, how beautiful and successful people say they are – but then realize they spent their whole lives under the influence of Satan and that everyone who followed them was pointed toward death, and they stand in judgment before God for the people they corrupted.
The resurrection is everything because it is the foundation of reality, hope, purpose, meaning, and life itself. A life not lived in the light of the resurrection is a wasted life – a dangerous life – a meaningless life.
Why? Because if you don’t know the resurrected Jesus, then you are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus – walking away from Jerusalem – before Jesus came to them. You are lost, though you think you know where you are going. You are believing lies, even though you think you know the truth. You are trying to find meaning and security where there is none. You are trying to discern what to do with your life while living in the dark. You are trying to find purpose among utter chaos, direction with no compass. Without knowing Jesus, all of your efforts to find peace, hope, and meaning, is like using your own strength to pull light out of a black hole.
So, my question to you today is this: Where are you on the Emmaus Road?
If you are a Christian, are you living in the light of the resurrection? Do you live each day in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Living each day like He is real, available, present, and willing to walk with you every step of the way? Does your relationship with the living, Lord Jesus make a difference in your daily life? Do you talk to Him about your hopes, fears, worries, plans, needs, and desires, knowing that He is near and willing to protect and guide? Or do you live as though you believe a story that happened 2000 years ago? I challenge you to examine yourself. Are you walking with the risen Lord Jesus each day?
If you are not a Christian, have you looked into the most important event in human history? Have you spent time thinking about it, reading about it, and talking about it – even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you know that believing it is a terrible risk? Have you felt the Holy Spirit tugging at your conscience, placing people in your life to tell you about Jesus, pointing you away from sin and death, and inviting you towards life – but you’ve been pushing them aside because you are afraid, or because your pride keeps telling you that your way is better? My challenge to you is to study the resurrection, talk about it with people, and seek the truth – and then, when you have done that and realize that it’s true – to submit yourself to what God has been trying to do in you, accept that amazing grace, turn away from your sins, ask God’s forgiveness, believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose again to destroy them forever, and follow Him from now on as your Risen Lord.
We like doing things ourselves, right? I think almost everyone here today takes pride in the skill and abilities they have, what they can accomplish, and how, for the most part, they don’t really need anyone’s help to get by. Sure – as I said last week – some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses and need for God for spiritual things, but when it comes to practical things – like home repair, cooking a meal, fixing a car, building a shed, manipulating a computer, or making clothes – we’re still pretty fond of the fact that we don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Being a do-it-yourselfer is good. Actually, in scripture, God praises the one who learns skills and then applies them with diligence. It’s not only those who know the Bible and practice spiritual disciplines that get kudos, but God also shows His pleasure with those who work hard at growing their business, playing music, build, manufacture, teach, explore, or make art. During the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35, God called on all people who knew to spin yarn and linen, work metal, grow plans and herbs, carve wood, and more.
There were a couple of men in particular that God blessed to be able to do all kinds of practical things. It says,
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” (Exo 35:24-29)
Sometimes Christians look at men and women who know lots about the Bible, or write, or are able to preach, or teach Sunday school and assume that’s what God wants all believers to try to live up to – but it’s not true. God needed a lot of skilled workers to build His temple and serve His people, and Bezalel and Oholiab were specially gifted by God to be craftsmen. And it’s the same in today’s church. We need all kinds of people in this world, this community, and this church.
If they would have said, “Since I’m just good at doing artistic stuff and am not a priest or a lawyer or a holy man, then I can’t work for God.”, they would have been disobeying God. All the time that these men spent alone in their sheds, planning, carving, pounding, moulding, and polishing – and apprenticing others how to do the same – brought glory to God and helped the worship of the entire nation of Israel.
And the priests would be sinning if they were to look at them and say, “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time banging metal together and weaving strings! You shouldn’t be an artist or hunter or shepherd or politician or soldier – you should quit all that and start doing important things!”. That would go against what God built and asked them to do.
God has given skills to some people that others will never have – because He decided they should have them to use them for His glory and the good of humanity. Many of Jesus parables aren’t based in the spiritual realm but in the practical side of life. He tells stories about farming, banking, housekeeping, construction, wine-making, baking, fishing, management, and law – and we never get a hint of Jesus disparaging or minimizing any of these occupations. It is the priest and the religious expert who get blasted by Jesus, not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Working in The Spirit’s Power
Why am I telling you this? Well, first, it’s important, but I also think it relates to our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Let’s read it and then I’ll riddle it out for you:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For 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 simple message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He is required to do all by Himself.
If you remember Paul’s story you will recall that Paul was a skilled guy with some of the best training the ancient world had to offer. Before he ever knew Jesus, his name was Saul, and he was already a formidable intellect, an unmatched student, and a force to reckoned with. He spoke multiple languages, had memorized huge quantities of not only scripture but also secular teachings, and was one of the most skilled lawyers in the world. He was a powerful speaker and no one could match his devotion or his resolve. He had the ferocity of a shark, the skill of a fox, the wisdom of an owl, the memory of an elephant, and the determination of a pit-bull. People feared getting on the wrong side of Saul.
When Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, he became Paul the missionary. And did Paul still use his great powers for the sake of spreading the gospel? Sometimes, yes. He gave unparalleled speeches before great worldly counsels, brought wisdom and insight to the apostles, and figured out more theology than almost anyone ever. Even the Apostle Peter said that some things in Paul’s writings are so complicated that they require a great deal of study and effort to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He was a true genius.
And yet, if you remember the story of Corinth, when Paul came into town the first time, he wasn’t he mighty man of God we might think he was. No, he was a man at the end of his rope. Saul the powerful persecutor had become Paul the broken and persecuted. He was alone, exhausted, rejected, afraid, and perhaps even ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But God had met him in a special way, had strengthened Him, encouraged him, and told him to keep preaching.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians wouldn’t be like his message to the Athenians or the Jews, or anyone else. Instead of turning all his mental and intellectual powers towards convincing people about the truths of Jesus’ claims to be Lord, God and Saviour, he decided to keep things very simple and leave the convincing up to God.
When Paul came into Corinth, he had only been an active, traveling missionary for about 4 years, but he had learned some valuable lessons during that time. One main thing he learned was that he needed to speak to people in a way they understood. He tells the Corinthians later that
“I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
Paul learned the importance of contextualizing his message to his audience. Which was one reason he made the decision not to “proclaim to [the Corinthians] the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom”. As we’ve said before, that would have been a distraction to them.
But he had learned another lesson too: that the success of his work wasn’t dependent on his intelligence or abilities but on God’s blessing. His missionary journey had broken him down, and as he taught the Corinthians, he didn’t sound like one of the greatest teachers in the world – instead, he was weak, fearful, and even trembling. He didn’t use a lot of arguments and illustrations and human wisdom (what he calls “plausible words of wisdom”), which would have impressed them, but instead, he abandoned all of that and “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.
He didn’t talk about the idols in town and draw illustrations from them. He didn’t give them history lessons or impress them with poetry and quotes from great philosophers – which he certainly could have, and that’s how the most popular teachers spoke. Instead, he kept it simple: Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, and the only way of salvation. He lived a perfect life, died at the hands of sinners, and rose again to conquer death, hell and sin, and offers forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sins, and believe that He is their Lord, God and only Savior.
I’m sure there were many discussions and many challenges, but instead of trying to impress them with his great knowledge, win them with powerful arguments, twist them in circles with his intellect, he simply talked about Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners.
He left the persuasion up to the Spirit of God. If God wanted the Corinthians to become Christians… if God wanted to plant a church in this pagan town… if God wanted to turn people in this crazily sinful city into disciples of Jesus… then God would have to do it.
Paul would be obedient and preach – but He wouldn’t try to do anything else. Not only was he was too tired and broken, but he had learned that if he tried to do it in his own strength, it would blow up in his face – especially in Corinth, the seedbed of Satanic influence. If he used his own strength, then maybe they would become disciples of Paul – but not Jesus. He wanted their “faith” to “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” And so he left the persuasion of souls up to God, by leaving any demonstration of power up to the Holy Spirit.
Working With God
And so, I say again: The message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He needs to do all by Himself.
God doesn’t need us to do anything. He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wants, but sometimes He prefers to accomplish His will through His people, so He invites us to work with Him. He gives us skills, abilities, gifts, time, energy and opportunity – and then says, “Ok, go do the thing I just set up. I’ll go with you to make sure it works.”
It’s like when your three year old wants to help you build something. You buy the pieces, do the planning, make the measurements, organize the equipment, and figure out the best time to do it – and they hold the flashlight, pound in the final nail, or get to paint a little part of it. And then later, they can tell all their friends, “See that thing over there? I built that!” Are they right? Of course not. But what does mom or dad say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think God is like that sometimes. He does 99.99% of the work, and then says, “Ok, now, I’ll do this last part with you. Go build this thing. Finish this up. Talk to that person. Draw that picture. Make that meal. Give them that book. Fix that thing.” And it takes a bunch of our energy and effort and time, but we finally finish, and then, when something incredible happens as a result, we sit back and think, “Wow, see that over there? I did that!” Are we right? No, of course not. But what does God say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think it’s like that when we partner with God. Christians who walk with God a long time start to realize this and more and more turn the glory back to God. They realize that it wasn’t them that did anything, but God working through them. They may have partnered with God in obedience, but it was really God who gets the glory.
That’s similar to what Paul was doing. He knew that he was supposed to preach and teach. It was his job and he was using the skillset God gave him. Just like Bezalel and Oholiab were good at arts and crafts, so Paul was good at talking. He was called and built for that purpose, and would be disobeying God if He didn’t do his job.
But He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s show. He knew that the more he depended on his own abilities and strengths, the less God would shine through Him. The more they saw of Paul, the less they would see of Jesus. And so he resolved, especially in his weakened state, to show as little of Paul, and as much of Jesus, as possible.
Things Only God Can Do
We have to realize, as Paul did, that there is nothing of eternal we can do without God, and there are a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. And, if we want God to act (to demonstrate His Spirit and His power), then we need to stop trying to do it for Him.
It would be like the three year old taking the pencil out of the adult’s hands and saying, “I’ll plan out this project.” Or taking the skill-saw away and saying, “Stand back, dad, I’ll cut this wood.” Or saying, “Get out of the kitchen. I’ll figure out how to make Thanksgiving dinner myself! Last year you made something I didn’t like, so this year I’m going to do the whole thing on my own.”
That’d be crazy, right? A toddler can’t do that. They’d get hurt, hurt someone else, ruin the project, and likely burn down the whole house. “Here, let me wash that phone for you.
“Here, use this wrench to cut that wood.” “Here, let me decorate that car for you.” A child absolutely needs to depend on the adult to get the job done right and safely.
It’s the same with us. There are things that we simply cannot do, that require a demonstration of the Spirit, and a movement of the power of God. And if we try to do them, we just mess it up! There are a lot of things that I could list, but consider these for a moment:
As much as we want to argue and convince people that we are right, we cannot change people’s hearts – only God can do that. Faith is a gift from God, not a skill we can teach. The Gospel and all its implications can be defended and explained, but it takes God changing a heart before it will be embraced.
Or pride. We cannot kill the pride within us – only God can. We can pretend to be humble, but even then we start to get prideful about how humble we are! Only God can truly humble us.
We cannot remove fear from ourselves. We can do all manner of worldly things to try to control fear or even ignore it – but we cannot remove it. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear.
We cannot stop worrying, and we cannot take away anyone else’s worry. We can give someone money, but we can’t remove worry from their hearts. We put someone in a safe place, assure them of their security, but nothing but a miracle from God can remove their worry.
We cannot generate love for someone, or make ourselves be able to truly forgive someone. We can chose to perform loving actions, and choose to forgive, but only God can ignite a love within us so strong that it overcomes our own hatred, bitterness or selfishness.
We cannot learn to hate our sin – that requires a miracle from God. We will make excuses for our sin, say how much we need it, explain it away, or bury it in a dark place so only we can see it. Even if it makes us sick, destroys our family, hurts our body, and destroys our minds, we can’t make ourselves hate it so much that we want to be free of it. Only God can do that. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can show us how hateful sin is. Unless God does that, we – and anyone we are praying for – will stay in their sin.
Let me give you two quick applications:
First, in all you do, partner with God. Sure, we can work with our hands, serve our family, fix something, and do a million other things without even thinking about God – and the unbelieving world does that all the time – but we can also do those things in partnership with God, which makes them an act worship and gives them everlasting value. That’s why scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Col 3:23), “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17) When you acknowledge the presence and the partnership of God in whatever task, it will bring a new meaning to all you do.
Second, and more importantly, realize that you are also utterly dependent on God for everything in your life. Don’t live as a “religious Christian” for spiritual things, but a “practical atheist” the rest of the time. You will not be able to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power if you are trying to do everything yourself and fix all your own problems. You are designed to need God, therefore stop being too foolish or prideful to ask.
It’s not your job to hold it all together, to be strong for everyone, to fight the good fight alone, or pull up your own socks. The more you exercise your control, the less you are giving to God. The more you work in your own strength, the less you will get from God. The more you try to figure it out in your own wisdom, the less wisdom you will get from God. If you’re trying to calm the storm, then you’ll never turn to Jesus who can do it for you. If you’re trying to make everyone safe and secure, you’re refusing the help of the one who can actually protect you. If you’re trying to plan your future without talking to God, you are performing a hopeless task.
There’s a great line in a song from Casting Crowns that says, “I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.” That’s a great line and an important truth. It’s not your job to hold on by your own power – what you need to do is acknowledge that in order to see God’s power at work in your life, you need remember that you just need to be held by Him.
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.