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A New Message for an Ancient City

January 31, 2023

-adapted from Dr. J. Vernon McGee, from the 1 Corinthians Bible Companion

Traveling back to the world of ancient Corinth means you need to engage your imagination. You will see the sights and hear the sounds of a bustling eastern European city. Known for its sparkling culture and prominence in the world of trade, Corinth had become the envy of the Roman world when Paul wrote this letter.

Yet, because of all that, the Corinthian Christians had fallen too much in love with the world. They pursued sinful activities and had little regard for spiritual things, except for a fascination with idols and gods. Just like people today, the Christians at Corinth were trading their devotion to Jesus for sexual satisfaction.

Sound familiar? It should. Fast-forward about two thousand years. It’s still hard to be “in the world but not of it” (1 John 2:15). But studying the letter to a group of Christians who needed to grow up in the Lord will help you redirect your priorities and turn the focus of your life away from satisfying selfish desires back to a devotion to Jesus Christ.

Likely written somewhere around 55 a.d., Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church carries themes you’d expect in a letter from a concerned pastor to believers living in the sin capital of the world. Located on a narrow stretch of land between Peloponnesus and the mainland, Corinth hummed with dazzling commerce, lively entertainment options, lots of sex, and all manner of decadent possibilities imaginable. It must have been an incredibly hard world to live in and remain clean before the Lord.

Greeks, Jews, and people from all over the known world made up a diverse mix of sailors, merchants, adventurers, and refugees all converging on the alluring Roman province.

Yet, like in many dark corners of the world today, the gospel made a difference. People had come to know Jesus through Paul’s preaching and teaching over the years. A church was born and started to grow right smack in the middle of all of Corinth’s wildness. Still, Christianity struggled to penetrate the thick walls of that pagan culture. The attraction of doing anything and everything to satisfy personal desires and fulfill very sinful appetites began to take away the original impact of the message of Jesus on the Corinthian Christians’ lives. Corinth was a tough place to be a Christian.

Religion itself was put to questionable uses. The Corinthians built a huge temple for the Greek goddess Aphrodite. In it were a thousand priestesses (prostitutes) who ministered to a base form of idol worship. Plain and simple, sex was religion in Corinth.

Perhaps that’s why Paul declared with urgency, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Into the darkness of Corinth, Paul brought the shining light of the gospel. He founded a church there and later wrote two letters (epistles) to the congregation. Paul came to Corinth on his second missionary journey and near the end of his third journey (Acts 18:1-18). He also met who would become two of his closest friends, Aquila and Priscilla, in Corinth. Good things happen in dark places when Jesus is the focus.

On Paul’s third journey, he enjoyed a long stay in Ephesus. During that time, he became aware of some of the problems that had cropped up in Corinth. Paul wrote them to help correct some of their errors in doctrine and they, in turn, wrote to Paul asking more questions. Paul answered them and responded to more reports that were brought to him. We don’t have that first letter Paul wrote to Corinth. But the follow up letter to the Corinthians is what has come to be known as 1 Corinthians—this letter answers some tough questions about the Christian life. Aren’t you thankful the Lord is up for answering your questions? We all have questions from time to time, and God faithfully responds when we ask.

God invites those in Christ into an intimate “fellowship” with Him. That word “fellowship” is the Greek word koinonia, which means “being together” as one. To have koinonia is to enjoy an intimate relationship to God through Christ.

The Corinthians had many questions and certainly struggled to keep their spiritual footing. But they, like us, received from Paul the encouraging reminder that, despite the struggle, Jesus keeps His children in perfect standing before God.

What a way to start a letter!

Take a moment to pause and offer praise to Jesus. What a great reminder of God’s faithfulness to bring us salvation like this through His Son.

Now in his letter, Paul got right to the point. The Corinthians weren’t getting along. That happens when people attempt to live together but do so focused on themselves. Divisions cause so much friction and pain.

The word for “divisions” is schisma. It means “fractures, or splinters.” There should be none of that among God’s people. Even in the most loving congregations, people are tempted to form cliques, argue over petty disagreements, and align themselves with important people rather than with Christ. Instead, God wants Christians to embrace the message of Jesus as the sole truth that keeps everyone together.

Since Christ is one Person, He is not divided. There is no division in Him so we all ought to share in that unity which comes from the Spirit. Even baptism, for Paul, was not that significant. In fact, he struggled to recall whom he had baptized at Corinth. Anything that draws attention away from Jesus has the potential to cause unnecessary and often destructive divisions in the church.

By focusing on Jesus, we guard against fostering harmful divisions. That is such an important principle for Christians to embrace. 

Download the 1 Corinthians Bible Companion for free.

Discussion Questions from the Bible Companion

  1. Does the description of the city of Corinth sound similar to where you live? Why or why not? 
  1. In what ways did living in a city like Corinth make it difficult to be a Christian? 
  1. What does it tell us about God that He is faithful to answer our questions? 
  1. How could being surrounded by so much sin affect someone’s identity as a Christian? 
  1. A focus on Jesus will help prevent division in the church. Where else do we tend to focus other than on Jesus? What about Jesus will unite us?