“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor of the 20th century. “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
I bet Paul’s community in Corinth would have gotten a kick out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Sometimes the Church is its own worst enemy. Life in community, even Christian community, especially Christian community, is a messy thing. It’s messy because we don’t walk away from it. We commit to making good things in the mess.
These two letters in the New Testament are a profound witness for us today in participating in God’s mission in the world. They show us that even the messiest, ugly, hopeless Christian community can be a compost pile of God’s new creation.
After Rome, Corinth was the largest, wealthiest, most cosmopolitan city in the Roman Empire. Located on the coast of Greece, it was like a modern day New York City—a melting pot of immigrants, cultures and religions. According to Acts 18, Paul visited Corinth on his second journey, establishing a small group of believers. Between AD 50–55, it is thought Paul wrote as many as five letters to the Christians in Corinth.
While in several of his letters in the Bible Paul confronts enemies outside the churches, all of the conflict he addresses in 1 and 2 Corinthians has to do with issues inside the church. Maybe we could title these “Christians Gone Wild” or “Believers Behaving Badly.” No fewer than 11 problems are talked about in 1 Corinthians, from suing one another to visiting prostitutes to abusing spiritual gifts. Clearly, the life of Jesus didn’t come easy for these people. Maybe there’s hope for us, too, when we see problems in our own church.
Second Corinthians may be one of the most difficult of the New Testament books to read because it’s Paul’s most personal correspondence. It’s like turning on a movie half way into it, not knowing what’s going on or who the characters are. Still, this letter speaks powerfully to the character of God. It contains some of the most memorable language in the Bible about the new life found in the way of Jesus.
These are extremely practical words for the church today. How can we live together? How can we all get along? How should leaders talk? What kind of leadership should be trusted?
Here are some things to keep in mind as you read 1 and 2 Corinthians:
What’s the backstory?
According to the account in Acts 18, Aquila and Priscilla are a couple of refugees from religious persecution in Rome who cross paths with Paul in Corinth. Together, along with Silas and Timothy, this group spends time preaching Jesus in the synagogue until they’re kicked out.
Titus Justus, a Gentile who lives next to the synagogue invites them in and hosts this house church. In time, the synagogue leader joins their group. Imagine those awkward encounters coming in and out of such a personal worship space right next the folks who kicked you out. It’s to these people that Paul writes about reconciliation.
God tells Paul in a dream, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” No doubt, an encouraging word in such a cosmopolitan, pagan place. When Paul is finally dragged before the Roman authorities by the Jewish leaders, it’s his accusers that wind up getting publicly beaten. In time, Paul with Aquila and Priscilla then travel on to plant a church in Ephesus.
The big ideas
First Corinthians is a letter about community life. It’s about how Christians should play well with one another. It’s quite clear that getting along doesn’t come easily this group that’s believed to be no more than 60 in number.
If there’s a thesis statement to 1 Corinthians, it’s this:
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1:10).
Unity is the big idea. Apparently, the community has communicated with Paul about a variety of specific points of conflict to which he’s responding. This is real life. This is messy church life. Notice how many time Paul writes, “Now regarding your question…” Consider what questions your community might ask Paul. How do you think he might respond?
If there’s a thesis statement to 2 Corinthians, it’s this:
“You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2:17).
Paul’s leadership has been called into question, and he is defending his reputation and credentials against his critics. Boasting and clever speeches were the measure of important people in the world of Corinth, and Paul maintains that his authority comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth, and not his own techniques. There’s a powerful lesson here for leaders today about what Christ-like influence looks like in an age of social media and platforms.
Bodies and resurrection
First Corinthians differs from most of Paul’s other letters in the New Testament. Many of them—Romans is a clear example—lay a clear theological foundation before coming to the practical working out in real life with real people. This letter focuses heavily on behavior, community life, and ethics.
But there is a theological frame that holds it all together. It starts with a discussion about the importance of the cross and it ends with the resurrection. This frame emphasizes how much our bodies matter—our appetites, whether food or sex—because our bodies will be resurrected just like Jesus’s body.
The world isn’t split into physical and spiritual worlds. There’s just one world that is both physical and spiritual. Matter matters. Bodies matter. The physical person of Jesus in the Incarnation and Resurrection prove it. As Paul writes, if there’s no Resurrection, the Christian faith is a sham.
Reading somebody else’s mail
Working through Paul’s second letter to Corinth is one of the more challenging reads in the New Testament. Paul writes with intense passion and emotion. Reading this is like walking into the middle of a heated discussion between two arguing parties. Apparently, over time the community has started to doubt Paul’s credentials and authority as a leader. If you’ve ever been a leader and had your people turn on you, you know what a crisis this can be.
Second Corinthians reminds us how removed we are from the New Testament. This isn’t a letter to or for us. We’re eavesdropping. And yet, the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully through this letter. It contains some of our most powerful biblical images of new creation, reconciliation, and strength in vulnerability. As wounded and defensive as Paul is in this letter, he never loses sight of Jesus and the good news that God is putting the world back together.
If you want to dig deeper, I recommend you check these out:
Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians by N.T. Wright
Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington
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