THE EPISTLES TO THE CORINTHIANS
The city of Corinth, where the church was situated to which Paul wrote the letter, or the letters, which we are to consider this morning, was a place that had been wealthy and famous ever since the time of Homer. It was situated upon the isthmus, or just at the isthmus, that connected the Peloponnesus with the northern part of Greece. This isthmus constituted a sort of bridge from the south to the north, and from the north to the south; and all who went from the north to the south, or from the south to the north, by land, must necessarily go across it. This of itself made Corinth a place of great commercial importance; but then, besides that, it was situated between two seas. There was the port of Cenchrea on the east and the port of Lechseum on the west, both of which were the seaports of Corinth; and all the traffic from Asia to the West at one time passed through Corinth. It was much easier for the navigator and avoided doubling those difficult and dangerous capes at the south of the Peloponnesus; and so his goods were transferred from one ship to another, and the traffic made its way by sea.
I do not know that even this situation at the isthmus would have determined the rank and importance of Corinth if it had not been that it was marvelously furnished by way of defense. The earliest settlements have been determined by possibilities of defense. I suppose that the earliest Scotch settlements were at Edinburgh simply because Edinburgh has a natural fortress, a great bluff, which could be easily defended. Just so the Acropolis at Athens determined the very early settlement at Athens, and just so at Corinth there was a great hill or bluff, higher than Gibraltar and quite as steep, one thousand, nine hundred feet high, which rose close to the sea, at the foot of which the city was built. This great bluff, or Acropolis, constituted a sort of a natural fortress and defense for the city.
Here were celebrated the Isthmian games, at which the enterprising of northern and southern Greece contended for the prize. Corinth was a city of great magnificence and splendor until the year 146 before Christ, when the Romans swept over Greece and the Consul Mummius took the city, totally destroyed it, and carried back from it to Rome the richest spoil that had ever been brought from the East. For one hundred years Corinth remained in perfect desolation, until at last, in the year 44 before Christ, Julius Caesar rebuilt the city. He peopled it with a colony of Italian freedmen; and it is very curious that we meet, in the references to Corinth in the New Testament, a remarkable number of Latin names, which look exceedingly curious as you see them masquerading in Greek dress. The names, for example, of Caius, Quartus, Fortunatus, Crispus, and Justus are all of them Latin and yet they take the Greek form.
The colony of Julius Caesar very rapidly grew. Merchants flocked to it. The Jews came there to trade, and the city had a marvelous growth, a growth that was like the growth of our Western American towns. From nothing, in one hundred years it had grown to be a city of six hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom two hundred thousand were freedmen and four hundred thousand were slaves.
It not only grew in numbers, in wealth, and magnificence (for here were situated those temples built of stone to which Paul alludes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians), but it was also celebrated for its school of rhetoric and philosophy. There were workshops and studios, and all the evidences of exceedingly busy and active life; but with all the literary and philosophical advantages of the place, with all its schools for rhetoric and oratory, there was also an esoteric luxury and licentiousness. Corinth was one of the very worst cities of the ancient world.
From the top of that Acrocorinthus of Corinth, one thousand, nine hundred feet high, there shone far off upon the Mgean Sea and upon all the surrounding country of Greece, the magnificent temple of Venus, where a thousand priestesses were consecrated every year to immorality; and the names "Corinthian banquet," "Corinthian drinker," and "Corinthian girl" were synonyms for all that was defiled and base. It was in Corinth, you remember, a little later than the time of which we are speaking to-day; it was in Corinth and with the sights of Corinth before him that the apostle Paul wrote the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, with its terrible list of the infamous doings of the heathen. It was here that the gospel was to make its inroads; it was here to be determined whether the gospel of Christ was as able to subdue and to bring under its dominion the license of the heathen as it was to subdue and put away the Judaistic yoke. That first entrance of Christianity into Corinth was forever memorable. More is told us with regard to the beginnings of the church in Corinth than in regard to the beginnings of the church in almost any other place. Here was a city in many respects like our modern cities, a city of exceedingly intense commercial life, a moneygetting and a pleasure-loving place, a place that was at once exceedingly vicious and exceedingly refined. What a question it was, whether the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ could win triumphs in such a city as this!
It was in the year 52 of our era, twenty-four years after the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and at about the forty-fifth year of the apostle's life, toward the close of his second missionary journey, or during his second missionary journey, that the apostle Paul first found his way into the city of Corinth. This great immoral city was entered by Paul as a solitary tent-maker. We do not know that he had a single friend or a single acquaintance in the place. All we know is that he found a certain Jew by the name of Aquila, who, with Priscilla his wife, had been banished from Rome by the Emperor Claudius. A decree had been passed expelling the Jews from Rome; Aquila and Priscilla, his wife, found their way to Corinth, and here they began work at their trade. Their trade was the same as Paul's.
Every Jew, however high-born he might be, however well-to-do he might be, was taught his trade. It was said among the Jews that he that did not teach his child a trade did teach him to steal; and so Paul all through his missionary life was dependent, at least at times, upon the work of his own hands. He went into
the workshop with Aquila; he sat side by side with him, we may believe; he worked with him upon the same bench, and won him to the faith of the gospel. This was the slight beginning of the great church of Corinth.
After a little, Paul was emboldened to go into the synagogue and preach Christ there. His spirit was stirred within him; he was under a sort of transport; the Holy Spirit moved him mightily to speak for Christ to those of his own nation. He had just come from Athens. His mission at Athens had been a sort of failure. He had preached to the philosophers, and the philosophers had turned a deaf ear to the gospel message. He was over-burdened; he was full of care; he felt his powerlessness and helplessness to contend with the great powers of this world and the evil of man; he tells the Corinthians that when he came among them he resolved that he would know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. In other words, he would not trust to human philosophy, he would not trust to human oratory, he would not trust to eloquence, he would not trust to speculation; but he would declare with the utmost simplicity the truths of the life of Christ, and would trust to the power of God alone to give effect to his words.
He entered the synagogue, he proclaimed Christ; and a few serious hearts were deeply impressed and were gained for the Christian faith. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, was one of them. But Paul's preaching ere long provoked violent antagonism from the Jews. It was impossible for him to continue his work there; and declaring that he would turn to the Gentiles, he left the synagogue and began his preaching in a house close by, belonging to a Gentile proselyte named Justus; and there, from that time, the meetings of the church were held. Large numbers from the middle and lower classes of the population, both Jews and Gentiles, but mainly from the Gentiles, were brought into the Corinthian church.
Paul labored there for a whole year and a half; and when at last the Jews, provoked by his success, sought to arouse a tumult against him and brought him before Gallio, the proconsul, who was, you remember, an exceedingly moderate and equitable man, the brother of Seneca, a philosopher of Rome, Gallio declared he would have nothing to do with these matters, and drove them from the judgment-seat; but Paul, anticipating further difficulty and hindrance in his work, and thinking it best, temporarily at least, to depart, made his way to Asia Minor and on toward Jerusalem.
After this departure of Paul, we know little with regard to what happened in the Corinthian church except by way of inference. It seems that a man by the name of Apollos, a Jew of Alexandria, a man who was eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures, but who had never been fully instructed with regard to the Christian scheme, who knew Christianity only from what he had heard from the disciples of John the Baptist, came to Ephesus and began to preach the gospel there. Aquila and Priscilla had, in the meantime, made their way across the JEgean Sea to Ephesus and were residing there. When they heard Apollos expounding the truth as he understood it. they, having had better instruction from the lips of Paul, saw that Apollos needed further light; and they began to expound the gospel to him as they had heard it from the apostle Paul. Apollos, learned and eloquent as he was, seems to have been a docile hearer. Priscilla was apparently the one who did the most of the talking and preaching to Apollos; for you find that Priscilla's name is a number of times mentioned first, as if she were the one who, by her sympathy and by her interest in Apollos, had done the most to bring him to a better understanding of the Christian faith.
After Apollos had been thus instructed, these new friends and instructors of his thought there was an excellent opportunity for him to do work for Christ in the Corinthian church; so they sent him with letters over to Corinth, and Apollos supplemented there the work of Paul.
It is easy to see that Apollos was a man of different mold from Paul. Paul had preached with the utmost simplicity; Paul had preached fundamental truth; Paul had not used the arts of oratory or the methods of philosophy; those whom he had gained he had gained simply by a deep inward conviction of the truth. The preaching of Apollos was more showy than that of Paul. It won a new class of persons, a class of persons, we may believe, who were not so thoughtful, who were not so thoroughly instructed when they came into the Christian church. They were more commonly from the class that had been accustomed to attend the heathen schools of oratory. It was a more superficial impression that was made upon them. The eloquence of Apollos and the philosophical art with which he expounded the Scriptures made its impression upon them.
The result was that a different class of persons, to some extent, was brought into the Corinthian church; and naturally those who were later brought in, under the influence of Apollos, and who had known very little with regard to the preaching of Paul, were inclined to pay great respect to the new preacher, under whose influence they had received the gospel. And as they found some differences of temperament and of feeling, and some differences of method between the older members of the church and themselves, it was very natural that there should spring up a party feeling in the church and that some should say: " I am of Paul; I am one of the constituent members of the church; I am one of those who were brought in under the original preaching of the great apostle "; and then the others would say: " I belong to the party of Apollos; I was brought in under the influence of this great and eloquent preacher of the gospel."
We have no reason to believe that this party division was encouraged by Apollos himself. We have every reason, on the other hand, to believe that it was not; but Apollos speedily took his departure, and the result was that there were two parties left in the church, which, to a certain extent, began to antagonize one another. We read also of a party of Cephas. Some think there was a visit of the apostle Peter to the church; but I do not know that we can be certain with regard to it. Then we read of a party of Christ. Some think there were emissaries from Jerusalem, who claimed to have special relations to Christ, and to have more authority even than the original Twelve. At any rate, it is perfectly plain that after a few years the church at Corinth was divided into parties, and that party strife and party feeling had already done much to hinder the work of the gospel.
It was at this time, about five years after the original foundation of the church, in the spring of the year 57, that Paul, after having been to Jerusalem, started out on his third missionary journey and came to Ephesus. At Ephesus he remained for two or three years. He lectured daily in the school of the rhetorician Tyrannus. Toward the close of that time the church in Corinth, in perplexity with regard to some matters which they did not know how to decide for themselves, sent a letter to the apostle Paul, asking for his advice, but not mentioning all the real difficulties that existed in the church. That letter, however, was supplemented by the information that was given by a woman named Chloe, a member of the church at Cenchrea, who came across to Ephesus, and who informed the apostle Paul with regard to other troubles in the church which needed the exercise of his apostolic authority; and Paul, feeling that there was great danger of all the fruits of his year and a half's labor being swept away, sat down and wrote to the church at Corinth the First Epistle to the Corinthians—that great Epistle which is next to the Epistle to the Romans in its practical value for us among the Epistles of the New Testament.
The object of this Epistle was quite different from that which Paul had in mind when he wrote his Epistle to the Romans. In writing to the Romans, whom he had never seen and who had never heard his preaching, his object was to set forth in a semiphilosophical treatise the way of salvation, the doctrine of Christ—not so much the facts of Christ's life, because they existed in the oral gospel, which I suppose was familiar to the Christians at Rome; but the way of salvation, the system of Christian doctrine just so far as it had to do with the justification and sanctification of man; but when Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians he did not need to set forth the way of salvation as he set it forth to the Romans, because he had preached at Corinth for a whole year and a half, and they were familiar with his general doctrine.
They did need something very different. They needed to have particular difficulties removed. They needed to have some of their important questions settled; and so the Epistles to the Corinthians dealt more with casuistry, dealt more with questions of conscience, dealt more with practical matters. In other words, they seem to proceed from a pastoral mind and heart, rather than from the mind and heart of a teacher of doctrine; and that is the great difference between the Epistles to the Corinthians and the Epistle to the Romans. The Epistle to the Romans gives us mainly the doctrine of Paul. The Epistles to the Corinthians deal with questions of practice. Paul treats these questions in no superficial way, but in the most fundamental way. He makes each particular difficulty, each particular trouble, the occasion of elucidating a fundamental principle, so that there is no compromising, no settling of the case upon mere grounds of expediency. In every instance Paul goes to the very root of the matter, and decides the case in such a way that it is a decision not only for the church of Corinth at that time, but a decision for all churches in all times thereafter. I do not mean that the exact application of the principle which Paul makes to the Corinthian church is necessarily the exact application which we are to make of the principle to-day; but I do mean that Paul, in deciding the questions that arose in the Corinthian church, gives such an exposition of the principle that applies to that case that we, taking that same principle, may make our own application to the peculiar circumstances of our own day.
Now, the First Epistle to the Corinthians treats a great variety of things. There are ten important and difficult questions with which Paul has to deal. They are questions so vague, and they are questions that require so much of wisdom to decide, that, as you review them one after another, and as you see with what skill, with what discretion and far-sighted wisdom the apostle determines them, it seems of itself to be proof that he was ordained and inspired by God.
Take this matter, for example, of party spirit. Parties among the Corinthians had a sort of halfidolatrous regard for special ministers or leaders of the church. Paul decides all this matter by bringing to mind the nature of the gospel, and by showing that the gospel brings us into absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ, brings us into direct relations to the Lord. We have personal dealings with a personal Saviour. Christian ministers? What are they but servants of Christ whose object is not to bring us into allegiance to themselves, but to bring us directly to the Saviour that we may bow at his feet and consecrate ourselves entirely to him! Therefore he is the greatest minister of the gospel who is the most of a servant, who puts himself most completely out of sight. "Paul may plant, and Apollos may water, but it is only God who gives the increase." So Paul gives us a proper idea of the relation between the minister and the church. The church is not to think that because it has had the advantage of the services of a certain minister of Christ, therefore it is to give a sort of idolatrous reverence to him. On the other hand, it is to reverence the Lord and to recognize the minister as the servant of the church for Jesus' sake. Therefore the reverence that the Corinthians were tempted to give to the servant he urges them to transfer to the Lord.
Here is a principle of vast importance, of, permanent application. How important the application of it is to-day! How many people there are'now who, in going into the church, go into the church as followers of the minister rather than as followers of Christ, and who, therefore, when the minister changes his place, are utterly lost to the church and the cause. This same principle which the apostle Paul has laid down to the early church in this Epistle to the Corinthians would meet very many of our church difficulties to-day.
Now, the second great difficulty that the apostle Paul had to meet in the church of the Corinthians was the difficulty of immorality. There were three different immoral things with which he had to contend. There was a particular case, you know, of shameful irregularity in the case of an incestuous person; and the church is exhorted to meet together, to excommunicate the man, and to clear its skirts of his iniquity. Then there is the matter of lawsuits before heathen judges. Christians had come to take their disputes before the heathen tribunals, instead of showing consideration and love for one another and submitting these disputes to the brethren in the church. Then there were matters of impurity which were the natural sequence of the former impure heathen life which so many of the Christian converts had previously led.
Paul treats all this with the utmost discretion, with the utmost delicacy; and in each case he gives us a fundamental principle which is sufficient to settle the whole matter and to restore harmony and union in the church.
There is a question with regard to self-denial, a question with regard to meats, the use of meats offered to idols. You know, in those heathen cities, where there were great heathen temples, almost all the animals that were slain for food had, before they were slain, been presented at an idol temple as an offering to the idol. Some portion of the animal was laid upon the altar, or presented to the priest, and then the rest was taken to the market and sold. Many a Christian convert, especially those who were converted from among the Jews, had a scruple of conscience about eating the meat that had been consecrated to a heathen god, and the consciences of the weak were injured by the practice of some who ate such meat.
The apostle Paul declares that although the meat in itself did not harm, and the mere fact that it had been offered at a heathen altar did not in any way harm it, at the same time if his eating this meat made his brother to offend he would not eat any more while the world stood. He would not set an evil example before another that would make him stumble and fall. Love N
for Christ should induce him to deny himself in some of these things which it was perfectly right for him abstractly to partake of. It was almost impossible in a city like Corinth to get any meat at all that had not been offered to an idol. It was a serious practical question as to where one was to get this staple article of food, so long as he could not partake of the meat offered to an idol. Paul tells us that the meat is the same, whether offered to an idol or not; any man can partake of it so long as he does not violate the conscience of another; but let Christian love be the main determining element in the case.
There was a matter with regard to marriage. Some of the Jewish converts were inclined to taboo marriage entirely, and to hold, in a sort of ascetic way, that it was a wrong thing for man to marry at all. Paul settles this matter also by declaring that marriage is a divine institution; that although there might be reasons which made it inexpedient to marry, there was no ordinance against it; and that, moreover, in many cases marriage was the desirable and natural and proper course on the part of Christian converts.
The apostle comes to certain other cases which we may call cases of disorder in the church. There was a practice which women had, or were beginning to have, of coming into the assemblies of the church unveiled. In Corinth it was customary for women as they went in public to be veiled. It was the custom of the East, and it is the custom of the East to-day.
When I went to Beyrout, in Syria, I attended the chapel of the American Mission there, and Doctor Thompson, the author of "The Land and the Book," preached a sermon. I went into the audience-room and sat down in one arm of an ell. The room was a double one, and it had two arms. The pulpit was in the angle between the two, and right before the pulpit, diagonally, was a curtain. I took my seat among Jews, Arabs, and Europeans, and the singing and the prayer proceeded. When they began to sing I found what I had not before suspected, that the part of the audience where I was, was only a small part of the number actually there, for beyond that curtain and in the other arm of the ell many women were assembled. They sang just as we men sang in the part of the room where I was, but the men could not see the women, and the women could not see the men.
That was a Christian congregation, only a few years ago, in a city in which women and men were entirely separated in worship, out of respect to that old fashion of the East. To this day in the streets of Beyrout and Damascus women cannot go unveiled except at the risk of exposing themselves to public reproach and of being stoned. Now, what is true to-day in the cities of the East was true in Corinth at the time of the apostle Paul. But Christian women, possessed of the new freedom which belonged to them in Christ, began to think they might transgress some of these laws of discretion. They came into the assembly of the church unveiled, and participated in the meeting as men would do. Now, the apostle Paul settles that matter by referring to the modesty and subordination of the female sex. He declares that it is not right for a woman to transgress these bounds; and so he applies the principle to those times and circumstances.
The principle of modesty and subordination is just as obligatory to-day as it was in the time of Paul; but the application of the principle may be very different in our day from what it was in the days of the apostle. Modesty and subordination to-day may not require all that it required in those days. It is not a breach of modesty or propriety for a woman to go unveiled today in the street or in a place of public worship. It would be no breach of modesty or propriety to-day for a woman to cut her hair; but in the days of the apostle Paul he forbade it, because it was at that time a breach of the principle of modesty and subordination.
So with regard to spiritual gifts. The apostle rebukes those who are inclined to make more of the showy gifts than of those gifts which minister to public instruction. He rebukes the disorder which attended the celebration of the Lord's Supper. When we think that the Corinthian church, in celebrating that sacred ordinance, was guilty of such disorder, such rudeness, such want of consideration, we can hardly believe that it was a Christian church at all. Let us remember that they were half-heathen yet. They had come into the Christian church with many of their heathen habits and heathen notions, and it was a long time before the religion of Christ could absolutely sweep away these relics of a heathen past.
Last of all, the apostle treats of the doctrine of the resurrection. Many of those who had been accustomed to speculate could not understand how there could be a resurrection from the dead. Paul first declares the fact. He declares that if Christ has not risen, then our hope is vain; and if Christ is risen from the dead, then we who belong to Christ shall also rise. Christ's resurrection is the pledge of the resurrection of his people; and Paul tells us that that resurrection is a resurrection to spiritual life. We are to have a spiritual body, by which I suppose he means not a body which is spirit, which is a contradiction of terms, but a body that is perfect, a body swift in movement as the light, and, notwithstanding, composed of material elements. The mystery of resurrection is not, by any means, solved, nor is it shown how the thing may be; but he tells us that God can and will work this wonder for his people.
Now, the apostle leaves his letter to produce its proper result. He goes on with his work. But his heart is deeply burdened; he longs to know the result of this instruction. Will this Corinthian church obey his teaching? Will it give up this party spirit? Will it harmonize its differences and accept his doctrine? All this rests like a burden upon his heart; and when the uproar occurs at Ephesus and drives him out, he goes to Troas, trying to get a little nearer to Corinth. In order to learn the news he sends Titus to Corinth to enforce his instructions. Learning nothing at Troas, he goes on to Macedonia. There Titus comes to him, bringing news that the Corinthians had received his letter as the very word of God; that they had excommunicated the incestuous person; that they had submitted themselves to his commands; and that the main sources of difficulty and trouble had been removed.
His deep anxiety was suddenly changed to overflowing joy. He sits down and writes the Second Epistle to the Corinthians at Philippi, about six months after the first had been written. In that Second Epistle to the Corinthians the very heart of the apostle Paul pours itself out in gratitude and love, and in thanksgiving to God for what he had wrought in the church of Corinth. After the first part of the Second Epistle, devoted to this expression of gratitude, has been written, he passes on to urge them now, as a token of their thankfulness to God, to partake in a contribution which he is making up for the church at Jerusalem. He wishes to carry back to Jerusalem a last token of his regard for the mother church, from which all these churches through the world have sprung, and he wants to engage the members of the church at Corinth in the work of making up this collection.
Then he devotes the last portion of the Second Epistle to urging his claims upon those who still resist his authority, for there were some bitter Jews who still resisted him, and he warns them that when he comes to them, as he shortly will, he will show that he is strong in his personal presence as well as strong in his letters.
These two Epistles to the Corinthians are wonderful Epistles. They show the apostle's wisdom, but then they also show the apostle's heart. There is a gentleness and tenderness in them that is marvelous. I do not wonder that Lord Littleton called the apostle Paul the finest gentleman that ever lived.
Think of the church at Corinth. How the apostle trusted them, and what courtesy he showed them! He wants them sanctified in Christ Jesus. That was what they ought to be, that was their normal condition. Paul knew there were many good souls among them that longed for nothing but the coming of God; and he groups them all together and speaks of them as Christians and sanctified in Christ Jesus.
It is a beautiful illustration of the way in which Christians ought to take people at their best, have a high consideration for them, make allowance for their failures, take it for granted that they intend to do well, and then urge them to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.