1 Corinthians 1–2: The Gospel & God’s Power

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 9: Sunday

Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called as saints, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:1–3 LSB

Sunday’s Bible reading, 1 Corinthians 1–2, begins one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth. Take the time to read Acts 18:1–17 before you start 1 Corinthians, because there Luke records Paul’s time in Corinth towards the end of Paul’s second missionary journey. At (viz).Bible you’ll find an interactive map of Paul’s missionary journeys. (Acts 18 will also tell you who Sosthenes is).

Click the map to enlarge.

It’s important to know what Paul had been through by the time he arrived in Corinth to help understand his mindset when he came there. From the map you can see that Paul came there toward the end of what in known as his second missionary journey.

If you look back at the preceding chapters in Acts you’ll find that Paul has had a hard time of things by the time he arrives at Corinth, having been at the mercy of mobs, jailed, and chased out of town. On this map from the J. B. Phillips New Testament, Corinth was Paul’s eighteenth stop on this second missionary journey.

Paul’s second missionary journey began in Acts 15:36. After he and Barnabas parted ways, Paul and Silas traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. In Acts 16, when they came to Derbe and Lystra, they met Timothy who joined them in their journey. From there they went through the Phrygian and Galatian region. When they came to Troas, Paul had a vision.

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the gospel to them.
Acts 16:9–10 LSB

They sailed to Macedonia, and went to Philippi. Acts 16:11–40 records their time there: they proclaimed the gospel, were seized, mobbed, and Paul and Silas were imprisoned. After they were released, in Acts 17:1, they came to Thessalonica. Paul reasoned in the synagogue there for three weeks before Paul and Silas were again seized and mobbed. The Christians there sent Paul and Silas away by night.

At the synagogue in Berea they had a much different treatment:

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
Acts 17:11 LSB

Unfortunately, when the Thessalonian Jews heard Paul was preaching in Berea, they traveled there to stir up the crowds. Paul left, while Silas and Timothy remained in Berea.

Click the map to enlarge.

Paul went to Athens (Acts 17:16–34) where he preached at the Areopagus to mixed reaction. He left and came to Corinth in Acts 18:1. There he met Aquila and Priscilla, who became dear friends, and once again Paul goes to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and Greeks. Silas and Timothy joined him from Macedonia, and:

Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly bearing witness to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
Acts 18:5b–6 LSB

Paul stayed in Corinth, going to the home of Titius Justus (next to the synagogue which must have been tense!). Crispus, a synagogue leader, and his household believed and were baptized. It was then that the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision.

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will lay a hand on you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”
Acts 18:9–10 LSB

Paul had not stopped speaking, but he’d been through shattering experiences, having been beaten, mobbed, and jailed. That’s the background to his words in 1 Corinthians 2:3, And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. In his vision the Lord Jesus gave him assurance he must have sorely needed. What compassion and what Jesus’ words must have meant to Paul. He stayed on in Corinth for eighteen months.

Ancient Corinth was an important center of commerce because of its location on the narrow Isthmus of Corinth that joined northern Greece and the Peloponnese to the south, with access to the sea in two directions.1 Anthony Thiselton writes:

“The first feature about the ancient city of Corinth which strikes the modern visitor, especially from the height of Acrocorinth above the ancient site, is its distinctive geographical situation at the crossroads or intersection between east and west and between north and south…

“Virtually all modern classical and archaeological studies confirm the commercial importance of the diolkos, a paved roadway built across the isthmus originally in the sixth century BC at its narrowest point of less than six kilometers. It was used for the transportation of cargo or even light ships, and part can be seen today.

“Although the north-south axis could not match the east-west axis in commercial importance, the vertical direction held strategic political and cultural importance as well as some commercial significance…The city became the capital of the senatorial province of Achaea, and by the second century AD it became the largest city in Greece.”2

The population of this cosmopolitan city was diverse and sexual immorality was rampant.3 That’s the city in which Paul lived and preached.

It’s important to know the backdrop of the lives of the Christians at Corinth to not only understand the problems they were having, but to understand the parallels between our times and theirs, which go beyond just their immorality. Thiselton comments:

“[There are] three fundamental points for our understanding of the epistle: (1) the city community and city culture of Corinth were formed after a Roman model, not a Greek one, even if many immigrants came from Achaea, Macedonia, and the East to consitute an equally cosmopolitan superstructure; (2) the city community and the city culture felt themselves to be prosperous and self-sufficient, even if there were many “have nots” who were socially vulnerable or dependent on others; (3) the core community and core tradition of the city culture were those of trade, business, and entrepreneurial pragmatism in the pursuit of success, even if some paid a heavy price for business failures or for the lack of the right contacts or the right opportunities…

“GIven the issues of (1) status inconsistency, (2) religious pluralism, (3) cosmopolitan immigration and trade, (4) priority of market forces not only in business but also in rhetoric, and (5) the emphasis upon recognition and perception of honor or shame within a socially constructed world, Paul would have been surely astonished at either (a) early twenty-first century laments about the problems of having to address a pluralist culture supposedly for the first time; or (b) early twenty-first century celebrations over the demise of a transcontextual rationality in favor of “local,” social contructions of truth. With today’s “postmodern” mood we may compare the self-sufficient, self-congratulatory culture of Corinth coupled with an obsession about peer-group prestige, success in competition, their devaluing of tradition and universals, and near contempt for those without standing in some chosen value system. All this provides an embarrassingly close model of a postmodern context for the gospel in our own times, even given the huge historical differences and distances in so many other respects. Quite apart from its rich theology of grace, the cross, the Holy Spirit, the ministry, love, and the resurrection, as an example of communicative action between the gospel and the world of given time, 1 Corinthians stands in a distinctive position of relevance to our own times.”4

As I thought about the similarities between postmodernism and Corinth, I thought of the dissimilarities between Paul and many ministers of today. Paul did not try to change his message to fit his audience, nor did he try to see if he could out-shock the Corinthians or dazzle them with rhetoric and attract them on their terms. Look at chapter 1 and notice the repeated words of wisdom and foolishness. Paul wrote that Christ sent him:

to proclaim the gospel, not in wisdom of word, so that the cross of Christ will not be made empty. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written,
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased, through the foolishness of the message preached, to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:17b–25 LSB

He did not want their faith to be in man’s wisdom, but in God’s power:

And when I came to you, brothers, I did not come with superiority of word or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the witness of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my word and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1–5 LSB

What a stark difference to the bells, whistles, and music of many of today’s worship services designed to entertain or ramp up emotions. Paul was a brilliant man and his teaching was clear, but he did not manipulate his listeners or change his message to make it palatable. Those postmoderns of Corinth didn’t need a postmodern gospel that would tickle their ears, but leave them dead in their sin. They needed to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

When you think about it, that’s a very hopeful thing for us. Given our post­modern world, as Thistleton says, “1 Corinthians stands in a distinctive position of relevance to our own times,” we don’t have to have the attractions and the trappings of our culture or the clever wisdom of the world for people to believe in Jesus. We need to follow Paul’s example and rely on God.

Given the diverse city and the pagan backdrop from which many of the of the new Christians came, and against which all of them lived, it’s not unexpected there were problems, and that Paul immediately addressed divisions within the church. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul will continue to set forth God’s truth without compromise as he teaches, rebukes, and corrects this church.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Corinth, Greece: NASA satellite photo. Public Domain.
Map of Paul’s Second Missionary Journey: J. B. Phillips Translation of the New Testament. http://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/JBPhillips.htm
The Theban Hegemony, 371 BC – 362 BC: Megistias: Public Domain. The map is not contemporary with Paul; I’ve used it to indicate the location of Corinth.
1,3Norman Hillyer, “1 Corinthians,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 1049, 1049
2,4Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapid MI: 2000) 1–2; 3–4, 16–17.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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