The First Epistle to the New Yorkers
On January 12, we plan to begin a sermon series through Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Though this letter was written almost two millennia ago to Christians living over 4,800 miles from here, it speaks with amazing clarity to our present cultural moment. Perhaps this is due to the similarities between ancient Corinth and New York City in 2020. Corinth, at the time of Paul, was a large and prosperous city. Five times the size of Athens, it sat between two major seaports at the crossroads of important, international trade routes. Though officially a Roman colony, the city of Corinth was home to people from all over the world -- Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians, Egyptians, Jews – a few of whom grew wealthy from the city’s commercial opportunities while many others were crushed by economic realities beyond their control.
In addition to its ethnic diversity, Corinth was the center of religious pluralism. The Jewish presence in Corinth was strong enough to support a thriving synagogue where the God of Abraham was worshiped. But the prominent spiritual influence was paganism. Historically, the city had been a center of the cult of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, which had contributed to its reputation as a place of sexual promiscuity. Though, to some degree, this reputation may have been overblown, it is clear from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the biblical ethic of sex and gender presented new concepts that many of them struggled to understand.
The overall values of Corinthian culture were human strength and wisdom. One scholar (Morris) writes, “[Corinth] was intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.” Another (von Dobshutz) writes: “The ideal of the Corinthians was the reckless development of the individual. The merchant who made his gain by all and every means, the man of pleasure surrendering himself to every lust, the athlete steeled to every bodily exercise and proud of his physical strength, are the true Corinthian types: in a word [people] who recognized no superior and no law but [their] own desires.”
Can you imagine attempting to live for Christ in a place like ancient Corinth? Can you imagine trying to raise hope-filled, believing children there? Can you imagine living as a Christian single while surrounded by Corinthian culture or trying to build a gospel-centered marriage in a place like that? If you live in New York City in 2020, it shouldn’t be hard for you to imagine what any of this would feel like. We live in a world that is much the same.
The tiny community of Christians in Corinth was primarily comprised of individuals who lacked status in their society (1 Cor. 1:26-29). They had seen violent opposition to the gospel from the beginning of their church (Acts 18). They felt out-numbered and irrelevant and were continually tempted to compromise with the world around them. This pressure to conform to worldly values led to serious problems in their church.
The Apostle’s basic answer to these problems was to remind the Corinthian Christians of the message of the Cross and of the on-going reality of the Holy Spirit. Though these answers may initially sound simplistic, it is amazing to discover, in 1 Corinthians, how the Cross and the Spirit can empower people to live together as a thriving community of faith in a spiritually harsh world.
I hope you will join us for our study of 1 Corinthians. We plan to take our time with it, and probably won’t finish until mid-summer. But we are confident that, with God’s help, we will find much in this book that speaks meaningfully to our lives today. Some of our Community Groups will be studying the sermon texts as we work through this series, so if you’ve been considering joining a group, now is a great time to do so. As always, please pray for our preachers and teachers as we enter this wonderful section of God’s Word.