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1st Century Corinth, USA

A Sermon on Acts 18 and selections from 1 Corinthians by Coty Pinckney


We will begin this morning with a quiz: Name this city and time: The city has about 650,000 people, it is a major commercial center and a center of legal activity; it has pretensions to be a major intellectual center. It is also a center of immorality, and its name itself has become associated with immorality. It was rebuilt after a disaster a little less than 100 years before this time, and after that rebuilding became one of the most important cities in the region. We might summarize this description by saying this city is intellectually astute, financially prosperous, and morally corrupt.

What is the city and time? Miami? San Francisco? It sounds much like many places in this country today, doesn't it? But this city is Corinth at the time of Paul. Corinth was in a natural location for a commercial center. Remember the shape of Greece: there is a very narrow land bridge connecting the southern part of Greece -- the Peloponnessus -- with the northern part of Greece. This land bridge is only 4-7 miles wide. Corinth was situated right at the southern part of that land bridge. Any commercial land traffic going between northern and southern Greece had to go thru Corinth. Similarly, at that time there were ports on the eastern and western sides of that land bridge, and ships would come to one of those parts. Small ships would actually be dragged on rollers, up about 1000 feet on one side, then down 1000 feet on the other, and then continue in the water on the other side. Larger ships would be offloaded; the cargo would be carried across the land bridge, and loaded on a new ship in the other port. This would be done because the southern point of Greece was dangerous for ships; shipping agents preferred not to send their ships all the way around that point, but rather to go through Corinth. This made Corinth the most important commercial center in the region. Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in the 140's BC because Corinth had been a leader in a Greek rebellion against Roman authority, but Julius Caesar rebuilt the city as a Roman colony in 46 BC, and it had prospered greatly after that time, quickly becoming one of the largest cities in the world. By the way, it was much bigger then than now -- the present city of Corinth has a population of only about 50,000. But the city at that time was large and prosperous.

One of the major features of the city -- situated on a hill about 500 feet above the city -- was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. There were about 1000 sacred prostitutes associated with the temple. One worshipped the goddess of love by having sexual relations with these prostitutes. So Corinth was intellectually astute, financially wealthy, morally corrupt -- in fact at that time, the name "Corinth" was turned into a verb: to corinthianize was to participate in sexual immorality.

So what Paul has to say to the people of Corinth is very much what Paul would say to us, to the people of the United States, were he to come to us today. So as we go thru Acts, thinking about what these activities, and spoken words have to say to us today as a church, what it tells us about what the church is and who we should be -- these words to Corinth are among the most important.

Paul stayed in Corinth a long time, longer than any place other than Ephesus. We don't know exactly how long; it was at least a year and a half, and conceivably a good bit more than that. He leaves Corinth -- as we will read in the next few weeks -- eventually returning for a few months, but while he is away in Ephesus he writes the two letters we have in the Bible, 1 and 2 Corinthians. He also wrote another letter, not in the Bible, that precedes these two. 1 Corinthians in particular is a letter written in response to their reply to his first letter. And in this letter the Corinthians said several things that we can infer from Paul's reply. We obviously don't have a copy of that letter, be we can infer much about the letter from Paul's words.

First, it seems that there were some people, probably Jews, who were challenging Paul's apostolic authority, saying things like, "When he writes to us he is very firm and powerful, but when he speaks he is not a very good speaker, and he really doesn't have much of a presence; he is very weak and mild." They were also asking him a series of questions about the church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul brings out answers to many of these -- obviously we can't talk about all of these this morning. But let me bring out a couple of topics in this letter: First, What is the nature of true leadership in the church? The Corinthians were having disputes about whom to follow. Paul, instead of telling them to follow a particular person, backs up and asks, "What is the nature of true leadership?" Second, he answers questions about Christians taking each other to court. He says Christians can never take each other to court. He says we should never follow personalities. He says we can never tolerate blatant sin in the church. He tells us we need to distinguish between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God. He says we need to have the right attitude towards giving and finances. We need to understand that we are all new creations in Christ, and God's ambassadors to the world around us. All these issues and many more are brought out in these letters of Paul to the Corinthians. But this morning I want to pick out five verses, four from 1 Corinthians and one from Acts 18 and talk about these verses as they apply to us: the church in the United States, the church in Williamstown, today.

Now the last time I spoke, after the service, some people were saying, "Thank you for the sermon." A particular child in Mr Merriam's class who shall go unnamed came up to me and said, "That was a really hard sermon to take notes on!" So, those of you in Mr Merriam's class, and any of the rest of you taking notes, there are 5 verses that I want you to write down. And then Mr Merriam will have you memorize them all for next week. First of all: "You are not your own; you were bought at a price." Second: "The wife's body does not belong to her; the husband's body does not belong to him." Third: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Fourth (and perhaps a bit more cryptic on its own): "Such were some of you." And finally: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent; for I am with you."

You are not your own; you were bought at a price

Let's begin with the first of these: 1 Corinthians 6, the end of 19 and the beginning of 20: "You are not your own; you were bought at a price." We can get some idea concerning what Paul was preaching in Corinth by looking at the letter to the Galatians. We don't know exactly when Galatians was written, but quite likely it was written about this time, possibly even while Paul was in Corinth. And in the letter to the Galatians Paul is particularly concerned to make clear to them that they are free in Christ, that you do not need to do anything to be saved, that we have complete freedom. Many of the Corinthians seem to have learned this lesson quite well. Paul says in Galatians 5:1 "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." In 5:13 "You my brothers were called to be free." And so Paul, quoting the Corinthians' letter to him, says 4 times in the book of 1 Corinthians, "Everything is permissible to me." This was the lesson that the Corinthians had learned from Paul. So they were throwing this back at him, saying "Everything is permissible for me, therefore --" and drawing some conclusions from that. One of the "therefores" was: "Sexual immorality doesn't matter. If I have complete freedom in Christ, I can do whatever I want." Another application was "Everything is permissible to me, so it doesn't matter if what I do hurts someone else. We have complete freedom in Christ! We can behave as we wish."

Well, is everything permissible for us? We do have complete freedom in Christ -- that is important to remember, not to allow ourselves to get back under the yoke of slavery of trying to live up to a law, as Paul talks about in Galatians. But let's read all of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Paul is talking about sexual immorality, but the application is much broader than that:

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, glorify God with your body.

The key here is seeing that Christian morality does not consist of defining what sin is, and then getting as close to sin as possible without crossing the line. That is not Christian morality. Nor does Christian morality consist of broadening the concept of sin to include lots of things that are not sin, and then avoiding those things. That is not Christian morality.

Let me give you an example from our home. We will call this particular child in our house "George" to maintain anonymity. There was chaos in our home -- that is not too unusual -- some children were singing, others were talking, it was rather loud and cacophonous, and one of the two parents said, "ENOUGH! No more singing!" So this particular child, George, went," Hmmm, mmm, hmmm-hmmm hmmm." We said, "George, we just told you to stop that!" And of course the reply was: "I'm not singing! I'm humming!"

Christian morality does not consist of making a distinction between singing and humming and then hum when you are told not to sing. What is Christian morality? It is striving for the good, not avoiding evil. It is becoming Christlike, not trying to see how close we can get to being immoral without doing so. As soon as we have an attitude of "Let's see how close I can get to sin without falling into it" we have already sinned. And the point that Paul is making here, "You are not your own, you were bought at a price," is, "Yes, we were purchased by God to be free -- but at the same time he is the purchaser, and we have a choice: we can either be slaves to sin, or we can be slaves to God. We can choose to be slaves to God, we can freely make that decision to be God's slave." Peter brings this out in one of my favorite verses in the Bible -- one of these days I'm going to preach a series on the paradoxical verses in the Bible -- and this is one of those verses. 1 Peter 2:16 "Live as free men -- Live as free men, but don't use your freedom as a cover-up for doing evil; live as God's slaves." In the same verse he brings these two thoughts together: "Live as free men -- Live as God's slave." We are the body of Christ; we are called by him to do his work in the world. We can voluntarily act as his slaves. The alternative -- this licentious attitude displayed by the Corinthians -- is to put ourselves back under this yoke of slavery to sin. So whose slave are you?

The wife's body does not belong to her; the husband's body does not belong to him

Let's move on to the second verse, from 1 Corinthians 7:4: "The wife's body does not belong to her; the husband's body does not belong to him." The Corinthian church was by no means united in their approach to sexuality. There was evidently a group of people within the church who had reacted very strongly to the licentiousness in the city and the licentiousness even in the church. And you can imagine that in this city -- which was very corrupt morally -- that there could be a strong reaction. And the reaction was, "Sex is dirty; sexual relationships are bad; so therefore, if I am going to be superspiritual, I will have nothing to do with sex, even if I am married." And so there was a group saying, "There are so many problems with sexual immorality, even those of us who are married should just forget about sex, and not have anything to do with sex." In cases of marriage where one marriage partner became a Christian, some were telling the person, "Get out of this relationship with a non-Christian! How can you be bonded, how can you engage in sexual relations with this non-Christian? Leave this man, or this woman, or at least abstain from sexual intercourse." While he was in Corinth, Paul evidently had made statements such as, "The time is short! Live as a single person devoted to God, even if you are married." He repeats that in 1 Corinthians 7, but he goes on to explain his meaning more carefully.

Well, what is Paul's reaction to the Corinthian reaction against licentiousness? Paul's reaction is unequivocal: Marriage is a one-flesh relationship; God has joined spouses together permanently. Sexual expression is an important part of this essential unity between them, and it should never be limited except by joint decision, for a brief time. Paul is very clear about that in 1 Corinthians 7. Divorce is never an option for two Christians, says Paul, and even if one marriage partner is a non-Christian, the Christian should stay in the marriage unless the other party brings about a divorce. He says in 7:16, "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your unbelieving husband? And how do you know, husband, whether you will save your unbelieving wife? " We all know here that marriage does not consist of living happily ever after, as the fairy tales would have us believe; and many of us have found ourselves, either now or sometime in the past, in marriages that are difficult, and far from the biblical ideal. This is the circumstance that so many Corinthian Christians were in. Paul is telling those of us in these situations to pray for our marriage, to put it before God, not to complain about our partner, but at the same time not to pretend that everything is OK. We are here as the body of Christ to help each other, to build each other up. So we need to examine the Scriptures to find the ideal for marriage, and most importantly to examine ourselves, to see how we are not living up to the Christian ideal for a husband or wife, and to change ourselves, by God's grace. Finally, we need to seek out biblical help on this. There are many people in this church who have gone through difficult times, and are now able to comfort and build up others who are in those times now. All of us, all of the body of Christ hurts and is limited when even one marriage among us is not working according to God's principles. So let us all be in prayer about that, and each one of us consider what we can do to help each other in these circumstances. But the main point here is that the marriage relationship is honored by God, the sexual relationship is honored by God; the sexual relationship is part of the essential unity of the couple, and is not to be looked down upon.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up

Third: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." 1 Corinthians 8:1, 2nd part of the verse. Once again, Paul is reacting to their statement that everything is permissible, therefore I can do anything that I want. The specific question here concerned whether or not a Christian in Corinth should participate in idol feasts. The temple of Aphrodite was not only a place to have sexual immorality, it was also a place where people would come to eat. It was an occasion where people would have a meal together. The meat that was eaten there had been sacrificed to the idol, then shared among the people who were there. It was almost like going out to a restaurant. So there were many questions concerning whether or not a Christian should eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. There was some dispute among the Christians in Corinth on this point. Some would say, "Everything is permissible! I can do what I want! I am free!" Others were saying, "Well, this seems to be associating myself with idol worship, and I don't want any part of that." Paul's point in all of this, is "What is your motivation in deciding what to do?" Is your motivation, "I am free, and therefore I want to exercise that freedom and do whatever I wish." Or is your motivation, "What can I do to build up members of the body?" So Paul says explicitly in 10:23 "Everything is permissible, but not everything leads to the building up of the body." And that is our goal.

It is very easy in this culture as in the Corinthian culture to make knowledge our goal. People who have knowledge get letters after their names; people who have knowledge get credentials that allow them to get good jobs. So knowledge becomes something of a goal in itself. But in the Christian life, knowledge can never be our goal. The test of spiritual maturity is not, "How much of the Bible do you know?" The criterion for spiritual maturity is, "How much love do you show towards others? How closely does your character resemble Christ's?" So the purpose of this church is not to have everyone out there to be able to find any verse in the Bible within 5 seconds after hearing the reference, or to have you memorize 500 Bible verses, although there is nothing wrong with either of those types of knowledge. The purpose of the church is to build up each other in love -- to help each one of us to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Paul says in 13:2, "If I can fathom all knowledge and have not love, I am nothing." Knowledge, as Paul implies in this verse, tends to make us arrogant if we are not careful. Knowledge can lead us to believe that we are better than others simply because we know more. Instead, we need to concentrate on acts and attitudes of love, on reaching out and comforting and building up each other.

Let me back up and approach this from one other perspective before I move on. It is frequently the case that people feel inadequate to serve in ministry because they say they don't know enough. Now it is important, of course, to learn more about the Bible. But God has a role and a ministry for every person in the body of Christ; every one of you has a role and a ministry no matter how much you know, even if you just became a Christian yesterday. God has a role for you. Don't let Satan tell you that because you don't know as much about the Bible as Jack or Doug that you can't play an important role; you can. Knowledge is good, and do read the Bible and learn it; take advantage of the opportunities we provide to learn about it. But you are not limited right now in what you can do; God does have a wonderful work and plan for you.

Such were some of you.

Fourth: "Such were some of you." 1 Corinthians 6, first part of verse 11. In 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 Paul is addressing the question of how a church should deal with obvious sin in its midst. And the church in history has tended to go back and forth between two extremes: One extreme is to condemn obvious sin, particularly sexual sin, and never offer forgiveness. The other extreme is in the name of diversity or humility or tolerance to ignore sin, in fact even to be proud of the fact that sin is not condemned in your midst. The Corinthians were tolerant, and proud of it, as 5:2 says. But what is the right attitude? Chapter 6:9-11 gives us the right attitude. Let us read those verses:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (Now that sounds like one extreme swing of the pendulum, doesn't it. It sounds as if he is saying, "If you have been involved in any of these things, forget it!" But let us read on:) 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So what should be our attitude towards sin? Paul is saying, "You cannot put up with obvious sin in your midst; you are doing no one a favor by ignoring sin. You are hurting the church body, you are hurting the individual. The individual needs to hear that sin is sin. But at the same time, we have to realize that that is what each one of us has come from. Such were some of you." When you look at Paul's list there, we can all identify categories and say, "He's not talking about me there!" But very few of us can look through that list and say honestly, "None of those apply to me." So we cannot put up with obvious sin in our midst; at the same time, we can forgive all sins, every sin, no matter how serious, when true repentance has taken place, knowing that each one of us is forgiven and cleansed only by the grace and mercy of God. Church discipline is important, and it is something that we as a church body need to think about very seriously. But the goal of all church discipline is the restoration of the sinner. We can have no tolerance for sin in ourselves or in our brothers and sisters, but every repentant sinner is welcomed, fed, loved, and built up, no matter what the past might have been.

Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent; for I am with you.

Finally, number 5: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent; for I am with you." Acts 18:9 to the beginning of 10. Corinth was a tough place for Paul. It was in many ways like the US, which in some ways is tough too. But remember, Paul is on his second missionary journey -- remember what has happened earlier. On this journey he want and picked up Timothy, but after that he couldn't go where he wanted to go; he ended up in Philippi where he was beaten and jailed and had to leave the city; he was in Thessolonica, and a mob came and attacked the house where he was staying; he wasn't there, but they dragged the owner of the house out, and Paul was forced to leave; then in Berea the Jews from Thessolonica came and stirred up the people and Paul was sent away; in Athens, he preached but not much seemed to happen. So Paul goes to Corinth. As you might have noticed, Paul is going to the synagogue once a week but he is not doing more than that. Paul is discouraged, quite discouraged at this time. He has been beaten, and his body bears the scars and bruises; he doesn't want it to happen again. He may have been asking himself, "Am I doing something wrong?" But God comes to him in a vision, saying "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 for I have many people in this city."

We too can remember that we do not need to be afraid; we do not need to be silent. The threats we face are much less severe than those faced by Paul, but in the middle of this society which is intellectually astute, financially prosperous, and morally corrupt, we too can speak; regardless of the level of our knowledge we can show God's love to the people around us. What does the gospel of Jesus Christ have to offer? It offers freedom -- freedom -- but freedom to choose to be God's slave. It offers love -- but love that will not tolerate unrepentant sin. It offers joy in true Christian relationships, in Christian marriage, in relationship with God; it offers peace, knowing that you are right with God. So remember these verses as you go out to your own version of Corinth in this week ahead. Remember them:

"You are not your own; you were bought at a price."
"The wife's body does not belong to her; the husband's body does not belong to him."
"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
"Such were some of you."
"Do not be afraid; for I am with you."

Let us pray:

Dear Lord, We thank you for your word to us, we thank you for the example of Paul and the wisdom that he expressed to the Corinthians in this letter. Lord we pray that we would indeed be your agents in the world, that we would have the boldness to speak to our friends and acquaintances about what you have done for us. Help us to share this gospel of freedom, love, joy, and peace to a world around us that needs it so badly. Lord, give us hearts that truly love; give us your vision for what you want Williamstown, and North Adams, and the areas around us to be. Thank you for the privilege of being your agents for change in this world. In Jesus' name, Amen.


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 1/23/94. The phrase "intellectually astute, financially prosperous, and morally corrupt" is taken from one of Ray Stedman's sermons; see all his sermons on 1 Corinthians at the PBC web site.

Copyright © 1995, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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