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Paul does not think the church at Corinth is maturing as they should. First Corinthians outlines several problems which were due to not fully applying their status in Christ (factions, sinful behavior, questions about key doctrines). In 1 Corinthians Paul was straightforward and confrontational, to the point that some in the church were offended. He therefore wrote another “tearful letter” and made what he calls “a painful visit” to the church in order to deal with these sins. This correction left many in the church with raw feelings, and Paul himself was angry and perhaps humiliated by the audacity of the church and their challenges to his authority.

Image result for godly sincerityIn this opening section of 2 Corinthians, Paul tries to explain where his heart was during these difficult times. He claims to have acted with pure motives for the good of the church, even if the church was offended by Paul. Ultimately, his goal was to “help the Corinthians make the necessary corrections themselves” (Garland, 2 Corinthians, 111).

Although it seems strange from a modern perspective, Paul boasts he has acted in good conscience (1:12). It is possible Paul could be accused of acting rashly in the way he attacked the church for the treatment of the sinful member of in 1 Corinthians 5. Later in the letter Paul will defend himself against people in the Corinthian church who are attacking his authority as an apostle. This boast at the beginning of the letter sets the tone for his later defense, he has acted properly and does not have anything weighing on his conscience as a result of previous confrontations through letters and visits.

First, Paul acted with integrity, or simplicity in the ESV. The word he uses here (ἁπλότης) is very flexible, which is why there more difference in the translations than usual. It is used in the New Testament for “personal integrity expressed in word or action” (BDAG), for behaving properly, without ulterior motives, or “without ambiguity,” or “simple goodness…‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas’” (BDAG). For example, it appears in Eph 6:5 and Col 3:22 in the context of how slaves ought to obey their masters. They ought to act sincerely, not simply to curry favor with their master.

Second, Paul’s relationship with Corinth is based on godly sincerity. This word (εἰλικρίνεια) is rare in the New Testament, it only appears in 1 Cor 5:8 to describe sincerity of worship (in contrast to the sinful man) and again in 2 Cor 2:17, sincere motives in contrast to certain “peddlers of the word of God.”  The word connotes purity, and can be used to describe something that is “unmixed” (“a pure and clear air” in Hippocrates, Vict. 2.38.5, for example). Spicq contends that the word does not connote “so much an absence of duplicity or hypocrisy as a fundamental integrity and transparency; it can be compared to innocence”(TLNT 1:423).

Was there an accusation of inconsistency from the Corinthian church? Perhaps someone said Paul “passes himself off as strong in his letters but comes off as weak in person (10:1–11; 13:2, 10). He threatens the rod (1 Cor 4:21) but runs away when discipline is necessary (2:1–4).” As a modern analogy, people tend to be much more bold and aggressive on the internet than in real life, especially if they are in some sort of anonymous forum. People say things in an email they might not say face-to-face!

Third, he did not act according to earthly wisdom. “Earthly” can be translated “fleshly” since the noun (σαρκικός) has the sense of human frailty. In the New Testament the word usually has a negative connotation, as it does here in contrast to the grace of God. This “mediocre, transitory, or sinful” human way of thinking is a theme which comes up often in 2 Corinthians. In this context, Paul is saying the way he treated the church was not the way people in the secular would have done it.

Perhaps he implies his condemnation could have been far more painful, or that his attack could have caused them a great deal more pain. He may simply mean his extension of grace to the church was unexpected—most would have written off the church as utterly corrupt and sinful, no longer able to be corrected and restored to fellowship. If a major theme of the letter is reconciliation, then “conventional human wisdom” would be reconciliation is impossible in this case, why even try?

It is possible someone in the church accused Paul of writing obscure, difficult letters, as if he was trying to display his “worldly wisdom.” Think of a young pastor who tries to demonstrate his theological education by referring to the Greek too often, or quoting obscure intellectuals (“as Kierkegaard says…”)

On the other hand, Paul was indeed sensitive to how his letters were interpreted. As Furnish comments, Paul was concerned someone “in Corinth was deliberately trying to turn Paul’s letters to the apostle’s own disadvantage” (II Corinthians, 130). Perhaps the charge against Paul was that he intentionally preached an unclear gospel out of impure motives. If a teaching could be interpreted in a favorable way, then Paul stands to gain honor. Like a modern political speech, maybe Paul was being evasive and vague to be “all things to all men” and gain favor of all men.

In contrast to the flawed way humans think and behave, Paul was motivated by the grace of God. Despite the sins of the church and Paul’s anger and humiliation over their behavior, they are still people who God has saved by grace. Paul acted to restore them to fellowship, even if he treated the sin boldly and hurt some people along the way.

It is always difficult to use Paul’s difficult relationship with Corinth as a “model for ministry.” But Paul’s claim here is that whatever happened, he was motivated by a sincere desire to extend God’s grace to the congregation. How would this attitude change the way we “do church”?

After Paul established the church at Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), he remained for 18 months before traveling to Ephesus. He will spend three years in Ephesus, although he appears to have done ministry in Troas as well as planting several churches around the Lycus Valley supported by the Ephesian churches.

From Ephesus, he wrote at least one letter which is now lost (1 Cor 5:9, possibly embedded in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). After hearing reports of divisions and other sins in the church and also receiving a letter from the church with a number of questions, Paul writes a second letter, 1 Corinthians. Paul sends another “severe letter,” probably lost to us and delivered by Titus (2 Cor 12:18). This letter appears to have upset the Corinthian believers and even angered some of them.

Timothy had been sent to Corinth to “to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:14, cf. 16:10). Instead of accepting Timothy as Paul’s personal representative, the church attacks Paul and Timothy is not able to handle the attack so he returns to Ephesus to report to Paul. After hearing from Timothy, Paul makes a “painful visit” to the church (2 Cor 2:1). This is not found in Acts, although Paul spends three years in Ephesus so there is plenty of time for visits to Corinth. This “painful visit” goes very badly and Paul returns to Ephesus angry and humiliated.

After this painful visit he writes another “tearful letter,” which is either lost or embedded in 2 Cor 10-13. During his time in Ephesus Paul faced some persecution and was faced with the possibility of death. This was likely an arrest and imprisonment, although there are no details in the book of Acts (2 Cor 7:8–9).

Titus intended to leave Corinth and meet Paul in Troas, where Paul is preaching at the time. They cannot find one another. Paul therefore does not know what the situation is in Corinth, causing further anxiety (2 Cor 2:12–13). When Paul and Titus finally meet, Paul learns the church dealt with their factions and desires to be reconciled with Paul (2 Cor 7:6-16).

Now that Paul has a better understanding of the situation in Corinth, he writes 2 Corinthians to deal with any remaining barriers to reconciliation with the church. (Martin, 37 suggests the autumn of A.D. 55, from Macedonia, prior to his return to Jerusalem to deliver the collection). It is possible the first nine chapters were written (and sent?) before Paul hears there is still some opposition in the church, chapters 10-13 target the teachers in the Corinthian church who are directly opposing Paul’s authority. The letter is delivered by Titus and two other brothers who are to take care of the collection before Paul arrives.

When Paul finally returns to Corinth he spends three months with the church (Acts 20:2-3). During this time he likely wrote the book of Romans.

This rather complicated story is an attempt to “read between the lines” and sort out several letters (which we do not have) and visits (which Acts does not report). To a certain extent this is speculative, but it is the traditional view of the relationship between Paul and this particularly difficult church.

As Garland points out that the Corinthians “were not yet comfortable in living out the scandal of the cross” (2 Corinthians, 31). The fact of Paul’s suffering and the possibility they too might suffer was troubling for the Gentiles who had converted to Christ.

 

 

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with misuse of spiritual gifts which led to divisions between self-described spiritual and the unspiritual people in the church. Their worship was no longer devoted to fellowship between people of every social class (male and female, slave and free). Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual. Whatever is happening, it is so disruptive a visitor would not just think the behavior of the church was strange, they might confuse it with pagan rituals and completely miss the Gospel.

Paul describes their worship as childish (14:20). Maturity has been a theme throughout the letter, but now Paul applies the congregation’s immaturity to their worship. Like factions or other issues of maturity in the letter, likely the problems with worship are related to social class distinctions.

It is likely people in the congregation believed ecstatic gifts were a sign of spirituality and therefore the more one prophesied or spoke in tongues, the more spiritual he is. This is the way the non-Christian Greek would have understood the ecstatic gifts. The contrast between childish and adult thinking is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to seek the “greater gifts” in chapter 13. It is inappropriate to “think as a child,” whether this is in the context of factions in the church, eating and drinking, lawsuits, etc.

Paul’s concern is for the outsider who needs to hear the Gospel (14:24-25). This is likely a Gentile who knows nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and would misunderstand what ecstatic speech is.

What would a Greek think about tongues or prophecy? Ben Witherington suggests prophecy would be naturally associated with the Delphic oracle, while tongues would have been associated with ecstatic speech among the followers of Dionysus (Community and Conflict, 276-9). In either case, a person visiting the congregation would hear the chaotic worship at Corinth and assume individuals in the church were possessed of spirits like an oracle. The Delphic oracle is only one example of ecstatic speech in the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 16, for example, Paul casts a demon from a slave girl who was used as an oracle in Philippi, she has the “spirit of Python.”

Paul’s problem with the congregation the same as earlier sections of the letter. They are once again failing to separate themselves from the world and therefore are not reaching the world. Their worship is indistinguishable from these commonly known practices and therefore has really ceased to do any good at all. For Paul, five intelligible words would be preferred to ecstatic speech! Witherington also points out that religious rites in the ancient world were usually done in silence, with nothing but a flute player to cover up ambient noise. As worship began, the phrase favete linguis was used – “check your tongue”!

While Paul is not necessarily calling for the Corinthians to sit in silence. There is a need for intelligibly and orderliness in worship. Far from being a sign of spiritual status, the gifts are just that, a gracious gift by God to be used for the building-up of the church. The elite of the church assume that they are better than others because they have been given this gift.

What would an outsider think if they heard ecstatic speech after a banquet which included good food and wine? The natural assumption is the cult of Dionysus. This is a disaster for the church, since the cult was almost always outlawed and looked down upon by “polite society.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

With respect to prophecy, it is possible the Corinthians understood the role of a prophet as an oracle, like that found at Delphi. In general, the oracle was asked specific questions, and gave cryptic yet clear answers. Witherington reports the oracle might be asked about religious or political matters, but these would not really be the concern of the Christian congregation. Rather, they would ask domestic questions: questions about career, marriage, or possibly even practice. There are a number of slogans in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permitted” (10:23) or “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). It is possible these are answers which were given through an alleged spirit of prophecy, in response to questions from the congregation.

Remember that the last half of this letter is a series of questions and answers. It is possible that the church is putting questions to Paul that they have already put to their own prophets! Perhaps this is the reason Paul quote these statements and then argues against them.

If these observations are even close to the mark, then this is another case of the Corinthian church failing to fully apply the Christ to the conversion of the pagan practices. Paul has to deal carefully with these people since he wants to encourage the use of spiritual gifts, but he must discourage behavior which is still “pagan.”

I really do not want to wade into the turbulent waters of the practice of tongues in contemporary worship since that distracts from Paul’s point. But if Paul is saying Christian worship ought to look different than the world, there is an equally disturbing application here. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and a country music concert, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and classical music performance, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a sermon and a pep-talk from a life coach, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?

Worship (in whatever form it takes) ought to draw people to the Gospel rather than drive them away.

Some people in the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This is the specific topic of chapter 8 and Paul will mention it again in 10:19. This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality

Image result for meat sacrificed to idolsThe church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Perhaps Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly). There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8).

  • The believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration. Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.
  • The believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.
  • The believers may have purchased the food for themselves in the market and served it in their own homes.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple. Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

But most likely, people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. It is likely participation in sacrifices and sacred meal was required to hold public office.  This is far more than a chance at a decent meal!

If this is the case, there was a social distinction between those in Corinth who ate the food and those who did not. People in higher social circles would be invited to a civic banquet at a Temple, only a person with some wealth would be purchase meat in the market to serve in their homes. The material in Gooch indicates some people may have gone to several cultic sites for food and entertainment, although the food itself may not be sacrificed.

As with the divisions in the church and some of the problems with immorality, the church at Corinth was divided along social lines, mirroring pagan Corinth.

This is one of those issues which seems obscure in a contemporary context. However, outside of Western Christianity, this eating food associated with idols may be a very serious issue. I would love to see a few comments from majority world Christians who have experienced this issue first hand. If there is a kind of “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Paul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?

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