Thursday, August 09, 2012

1st Corinthians A Letter of Assurance and Correction

There are various theological systems that take statements in 1st Corinthians and use them to question, cast doubt on, and encourage people to question their own, salvation of those who claim to be Christian.

I know people appeal to "context" when they teach such things. However, I've seldom ever seen someone develop context from the Scriptures. It is a skill the Church is sorely lacking today. So much is said about "context, context, context" and people throw around the word "hermeneutics" but how much controversy is there about 1st Corinthians? From groups that want to pattern themselves after the Corinthians, to people saying that much of the letter is about people who aren't "truly saved" isn't it strange that none of these groups can explain the context they use to interpret the Scripture, from the Scripture itself?

When I wrote Fail-Safe for Fallacy I was a strong proponent of reading Scripture out loud to one's self. I still am! I think it is an amazing way to check what you're reading and understanding. This year however, I've added listening to the books of the bible repeatedly as I exercise. This has doubled, or tripled the amount of time I get to spend in the Word weekly. It has also exposed me to the context of each of these books much more effectively. I can spend entirely too much time in a passage or verse, and when I do that it's easy to forget the purpose the author of the book had in mind.

Let's see what Paul had in mind for 1st Corinthians.

1Cor 1:1-3

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul's greeting identifies who he is writing to very clearly. Those how are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. This doesn't in itself mean that everyone Paul will talk about in the letter is saved, but it DOES mean that it is addressed to saved people. The "you" in this letter referes to saved Christians.

1Cor 1:4-9

I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus,that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In case there is any doubt that Paul believes these people to be truly saved he includes statements like: "for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus" "even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you" "our Lord Jesus Christ who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." These are not things you can say about the unsaved, or even the potentially unsaved. Surely God who cannot lie, could not inspire such words about unsaved people.

There is absolutely no way to get around the fact that the "you" this letter is addressed to is a group of people who are unquestionably saved in Christ.

So now that we have established "Who" the letter is written to, we come to "why" Paul is writing to them - and us who call on the Name of the Lord as we read in 1Cor 1:2

1Cor 1:10

10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 
This is the purpose of the letter. We can now state the overall context of 1st Corinthians to be: Paul correcting the divisions among saved, but carnal, Believers at Corinth and by extension Believers throughout this age. 

1Cor 1:11-17  

11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. 16 Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
Paul hits the root of the problem right away. He, is glad that he didn't sow this disorder by baptizing people himself. He's glad to have been obedient to the call which the Lord put on his life - to preach the Gospel. 

1Cor 1:18-25

18 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. 19 For it is written:“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 
20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The reader of 1st & 2nd Corinthians will find that Corinthians preferred the cleverness and bondage of their "super apostles" over the humble and hard working Paul. They had clever doctrines which confused the Gospel with wise sounding intellectual doctrines which went against the Gospel of the Christ. They even taught the Corinthians that there is no resurrection of the dead. 1Cor 15. In the quoted passage we find Paul sticking to the truth of the Gospel instead of trying to spruce it up to capture the attention of the Corinthians. 

1Cor 1:26-31

26 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence. 30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— 31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”
Paul continues with his harsh words against relying on intellectualism.

So from the first chapter of 1st Corinthians we find that Paul is writing to saved Christians who are divided to follow various wise sounding people and systems in order to correct their disorderly behaviour.

This is the context of the letter, derived from the Scripture not from any other source. Let's look at a few important passages with this context in mind.

1Cor 2:14 is often used as a proof-text to show how unregenerate people are "unable" to believe the Gospel unless they are regenerated first. 

14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

However, Paul starts the chapter talking about how he didn't come to them with wisdom of words, but instead simply stuck with the Gospel. 1Cor 2:1-5 Paul then goes on to talk about how he speaks wisdom to those who are mature. That these deep things, these wise things are hidden from the world, not the Gospel - not Christ and Him Crucified 1Cor 2:2 but the deeper things of God. The things that if the rulers of this world knew, would change what they would do so that they would not even have crucified the Lord. 1Cor 2:7-8

Let us then look at 1Cor 2:13-15

13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 16 For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
As we see, this is not about how unregenerate people cannot believe the Gospel, but it is about how these important things of wisdom in God are only spiritually discerned - and that doesn't just mean being regenerate, but also mature in the faith.

Paul continues his explanation of why he can't explain the wisdom of God to them in the third chapter. They are carnal. These believers. These truly saved believers are carnal, and cannot receive the wisdom of God and so must be again taught about Christ and Him Crucified. 1Cor 3:1-3

Paul continues to rebuke the Corinthians for being enthralled by the wisdom of men. Talking about their carnality, division and their desire to appear wise like those "super apostles." 1Cor 3:4-22

And then Paul talks about how he doesn't even judge his own performance. He's not interested in measuring up to those whom the Corinthians prefer, and he knows that even if he could see nothing against himself that this would not justify him. 1Cor 4:1-5

Then being careful to avoid accusing his Brother, Paul explains how he has made his argument using Apollos in order to show them the issue they suffer from.

1Cor 4:6-7

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
Paul demonstrates his humility and contrasts it with how he has allowed the Corinthians to be. 1Cor 4:8-13 Then he returns to his loving tone, explaining why he is writing this. 

1Cor 4:14-17

14 I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. 15 For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you, imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.
This is not something you can write to someone you think may or may not be saved. He's begotten these children of his through the Gospel. Because of this he tells them to imitate him in his humility. The chapter is closed with a stern warning and a solemn choice for the Corinthians to make. Do they want Paul to come in gentle love, or as a father to correct with the rod? 1Cor 4:18-21

In his fifth chapter Paul talks about a specific problem with sexual immorality in the assembly. Paul tells them to come together and put the one, who is engaged in sexual immorality of a sort that isn't even named among the unsaved, out of the assembly so that he may suffer at the hands of satan for a season. We see in 2nd Corinthians that this man was to be accepted back into fellowship readily when he repented. 1Cor 5:1-5

Then we get an interesting warning and instruction from the Apostle.

1Cor 5:6-8 
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
These truly saved Believers are to understand that leaving the man in the assembly dirtied all of them. Even though they are truly unleavened - without sin, this man's sinful practice and their glorying in accepting him actually dirties them. 

Paul closes the chapter with instruction to show them that it is only Believers who are sexually impure who they are to separate from. They are not to try to reform the world, or withdraw from the world. They are to be in the world, but not of the world. They are to be there spreading the word of Christ, but not becoming like the world. "Therefore" Paul writes, put that one out of the assembly. 1Cor 5:9-13

I've looked at the context of the letter, and used that context to interpret the first 5 chapters of this letter. What's clear to me is that Paul offered clear assurance to Believers he knew to be saved, and also stern correction to these same carnal ones who were so stuck on the wisdom of the world, and division that they actually couldn't understand the deeper things of God.

Go through the rest of this letter and take in the richness of Paul's care of this assembly, and us Believers today.

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