When Paul arrived in Corinth, it was with a sense of failure and frustration that he had never known before. He was used to battling and debating for the truth of the gospel. He was used to being opposed and attacked because of message of Jesus Christ. But he had never been dismissed as irrelevant. But that’s what happened in Athens. Standing before the Areopagus, they scoffed at the idea of Jesus and the resurrection.
You hear it in his letter to the Corinthians – “For the message 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: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher 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 know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:18-21).
And he had learned a lesson. He had stood toe to toe with the philosophers – he had spoken their language and had presented God on their terms – and had been dismissed as a fool. When he arrived in Corinth, he had done some soul searching – “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
As Paul walked around Athens, he had been distressed by the idolatry he observed. But when Paul arrived in Corinth, he was overwhelmed by the immorality that surrounded him. Corinth was a cosmopolitan seaport – a major crossroads on the shipping routes. It attracted the worst of everything. Corinth was the home of the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Worship to Aphrodite involved the practice of ritual prostitution, and during Paul’s day over a thousand temple prostitutes served as “priestesses” to accommodate all of the “worshipers.” It was so bad that the phrase “to Corinthianize” meant to be sexually immoral. And so you hear this very specific warning in Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” and in vs. 18-20 “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
He’s writing to Christians who have come out of a culture that was immersed in immorality and jaded to ideas of personal ethics or holiness, but still have to live in it every day. He fought an uphill battle in a church that would look the other way when one of its members shamelessly carried on an affair with his father’s wife – something even their pagan neighbors wouldn’t have condoned.
That same message rings just as true today. Immorality doesn’t just flirt around the edges in brown paper wrapped magazines and hustle on street corners in big cities. Graphic pornography is a keystroke away on your computer. Our culture has desensitized us to the sinfulness and unholiness of immorality and glorified it as a badge of honor. It jokes about purity and holiness as though they are the things a young person should be ashamed of, and promiscuity is, not just common, but expected.
And our response? It ought to be the same as Paul’s. A generation ago, the warning against immorality was that you would ruin your reputation or get a disease or get pregnant. And all of that completely missed the point. Do you hear why Paul says one should remain pure? “…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
Our purity comes, not out of a fear of some cultural consequence, but out of our relationship with God – we are one with Christ.
Corinth was the place where God taught Paul as much about himself as Paul taught the Corinthians about God. It was in Corinth that Paul finally realized the limits of his own power and competency. He discovered the irony that when we finally come to the end of our own resources, and not a moment before, then God can begin to work. We hear it in his two letters to the Corinthians:
1 Cor. 10:13 “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
2 Cor. 4:16 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”
2 Cor. 12:7-10 “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Until we learn the lessons of weakness and brokenness, God’s ability to work in our lives and through our lives is limited by our own self-sufficiency.
It is in Corinth that God delivered a powerful message to Paul that impacted everything he did from that point on. Paul had begun, as he always did, in the synagogue debating with the Jews. But his teaching about Jesus met with such opposition and abuse that he once again shook his clothes out and said, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
One night, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10).
I hear God saying three things to Paul that I think speak just as powerfully to us today:
1) "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.”
One of Satan’s most effective tools is to silence us. And to do that he isolates and intimidates and strangles the life from us. And somewhere in the midst of it all, we lose sight of God. We get swallowed up in the discouragement.
I’ve talked with a lot of Christians who just don’t talk to their friends or neighbors or co-workers about Christ because they are afraid. They’re not afraid of being beaten, or attacked physically – but they are afraid of being looked down on or rejected or thought less of.
And Satan wins. He doesn’t have to convince us to speak lies or wrong doctrine or hateful slander – just close our lips – and he wins. But God tells us – “keep on speaking, do not be silent.”
How can I tell you how important it is that you keep speaking about Jesus?
• Do I tell you stories about guys like Bob, a man I knew, who always brushed off religious talk as just so much mindless garbage. Until the day his life came crashing in around him and suddenly he didn’t have all the answers anymore – and this time the words sunk in and took root and he found the Savior he’d been running from.
• Or Sally, who looked around her one day and said, “my life’s a mess” and she went back to the one person she knew who seemed to have a clue about life – her co-worker Pat, a member at our church who started bringing her to church where she discovered for herself what life’s about.
• Or maybe, it’s your story. Somebody kept talking to you about Jesus, or kept inviting you to church, or just wouldn’t give up on you. And if it hadn’t been for them – you’d have never come to know Jesus and given your life to him.
And there are people around you who need to hear the gospel – and you are the only one that may ever have the relationship and the opportunity to share the good news with them. But if you are silent – if you keep your mouth shut because you are afraid – Satan wins that soul.
Paul passed that encouragement on to Timothy who struggled with fearfulness – “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
2) “I am with you”
I guess it’s just human nature to lose sight of God – to feel like we’re all alone. To forget that God is with us. Elijah forgot – Jeremiah forgot – Moses forgot – even Paul forgot. They all needed reminding – “I am with you.” It’s a reminder you and I need as well. So I’m here to remind you – God is with you.
That’s probably why Paul spends more time telling the Corinthians things like, “you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you” (3:16), or “Your body is a temple of the HS, who is in you” (6:19), than any other church.
Have you thought about what that means? God is with me. First of all that’s a pretty powerful motivation to holiness – if you think about God being with you there’s lots of places you wouldn’t go, lots of activities that you wouldn’t be involved in. But God’s reminder that he is with us is intended to inspire courage and confidence – If God is with me, there is nothing I can’t face. If God is with me, I can talk to anybody, I can attempt any task, I can give anything, I can serve anyone. I will not be afraid, or intimidated, or insulted, because God is in control.
3) And finally, God reminds Paul, “I have many people in this city.”
As much as we need to be reminded that God is with us, we also need to be reminded that we’re not in this alone. God surrounds us with his people – people who share our faith / convictions / vision.
• There in Corinth, Paul met a couple – Aquila and Priscilla – they were tentmakers who had been evicted from Rome with the rest of the Jews at the edict of the emperor Claudius in AD 49. Paul was a tentmaker by trade, and they became friends and co-workers – not just in making tents, but in sharing the gospel.
• You remember that Paul’s traveling companions, Silas and Timothy had remained in Berea to strengthen the church there while Paul went on alone to Athens and was supposed to wait there for them. They finally caught up with him in Corinth and once again the mission team is re-united.
• And unlike his work in Athens, Paul’s preaching is very successful among the Gentiles and this church grows rapidly over the year and a half that Paul spends in Corinth.
Paul surrounded himself with people who were as passionate about the gospel as he was. If you want to really grow and thrive in your spiritual life, surround yourself with the kind of people you want to be like. The surest and quickest way to kill your spiritual life is to make your best friends among people of the world who don’t share your love for God, who don’t prioritize their weekends around the Lord’s day. If you want a strong spiritual life, build your support system with people who are going to encourage you in those goals – “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Heb. 3:12-14).
God puts us in the church to strengthen and encourage one another. There is no such thing as the lone-wolf Christian. Even Paul didn’t try to go it alone. He needed the encouragement and support of brothers and sisters in Christ. And so he writes to the Corinthians about being the body of Christ, the family of God. And they are more than just words – they are our reality. They describe the connection we have and the love we experience. And the reason we are a family is because we have a Father who is with us.
Posted on Sun, October 31, 2010
by John Roberts