14-9 Paul and Corinth
In the letters to Corinth we really come to learn something of the mind of Paul; and he asked us to follow him, so that we might follow our Lord the more closely. So we want to analyze the relationship between Paul and Corinth in some detail; for we are all in desperate need of learning how to relate to each other better.
Firstly, let's firmly place in our minds the supreme spirituality of Paul. He saw visions which were unlawful to be uttered, he could look back on a string of ecclesias worldwide which were a result of his work, his writings show that he reached higher into the mysteries of God than most other man have ever gone. Naturally speaking, it must have been so difficult for him to relate to immature or unspiritual brethren and sisters! And yet his sense of identity with his spiritual children comes through all the time. Note how he purposefully mixes his pronouns: “We know in part…I know in part…we see in a mirror…I spoke as a child” (1 Cor. 13).
Now consider Corinth. Getting drunk at the breaking of bread, some members openly committing incest and other sexual perversions; and being justified by much of the ecclesia. Some had not the knowledge of God (1 Cor.15:34). The basic truth of Christ's resurrection and the second coming were denied, and Paul was slandered unbelievably. There is fair emphasis on Corinth's willing belief of the vicious denigration of Paul's character, made by some of their elders (1 Cor.2:16; 3:10; 4:11-14; 9:20-27; 14:18). The depths to which that ecclesia sunk are hard to plumb. And yet Paul believed that they abounded in love for him; he asks them to abound in their generosity to others as they abounded in their love for him (2 Cor. 12:7). Truly Paul reflected his own experience of having righteousness imputed to him.
So the relationship between Paul and Corinth is fascinating, but above all it's instructive of not only how we should relate to each other, but how Christ relates to us. There is a strange paradox throughout the letters to Corinth. Paul uses the most exalted and positive language about them, enthusing about the certainty of their salvation, and yet he also accuses them of the most incredible spiritual weaknesses. There's a clear example in the chapter we've just read. In 1 Cor.1:8,9, we read of Paul enthusiastically saying that God would " confirm you (note that) unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus" . But then in v.12 he accuses every one of them of being guilty of factionism and division: " Every one of you (the same 'you' of v.8,9) saith, I am of Paul...(etc.)" . Paul really believed what he says in v.4: " I thank my God always on your behalf (implying: 'You ought to be thanking Him, but I'm doing it for you'?), for the grace of God which is given you..." . This was the secret of how Paul managed to relate to them so positively; He deeply believed that they were in receipt of God's grace on account of their being in Christ.
The Love Of Paul
So let's just review the positive way in which Paul felt towards his Corinthian brethren. His love for them was " in (his) heart, known and read of all men" (2 Cor.3:2). He boasted to others of their " zeal" to give money to the poor, even though it seems they had just made empty promises (2 Cor. 9:2). And in 2 Cor. 9:13 he goes even further; he speaks as if they had already distributed money to other churches. He saw them as righteous, even though they hadn't performed the acts they vaguely spoke of. Paul was surely reflecting the spirit of the Father and Son here. It may even be that Paul mentioned his devotion to Corinth in his 'front-line' presentation of the Gospel to others: " We preach...Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor.4:5). His great wish was their " perfection" (2 Cor. 13:9). Paul's deep-seated love for Corinth was absolutely evident to all who knew them; it was not an act of the will, which occurred just within Paul's mind. So often our 'love' for difficult members of the ecclesia is no more than a grimly made act of the will. Even in the midst of rebuking them, Paul uses the language of real endearment: " Wherefore, my dearly beloved , flee from idolatry" (1 Cor.10:14). The word " brethren" occurs as a refrain throughout the letters; it appears 19 times in the first letter alone, compared with 9 times in the letter to the Romans (a longer epistle). This is similar to the way in which Jeremiah repeatedly describes the Israel who rejected and betrayed him as “my people” (e.g. Jer. 8:11,19,21,22). Despite all the cruel allegations made by them against Paul, he did not deal with them in the cagey, 'political' manner so common in our circles: " O ye Corinthians , our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged" (2 Cor. 6:11). It is noteworthy that Paul is here alluding to Ps. 119:32, which speaks of God's word enlarging a man's heart. It was through his application to the word that Paul came to this large-hearted attitude. A smaller man than Paul would have trod mighty carefully with Corinth, making no more than succinct, measured statements. But his deep love for them led Paul to be as open-hearted as can be. Indeed, his pouring forth of his innermost soul to them in the autobiographical sections of 2 Cor. is evidence of how his heart and mouth were truly opened and enlarged unto them. There was no shrugging if the shoulders within Paul at the spiritual plight of Corinth: " Ye are in our hearts, to die and live with you" (2 Cor. 7:3). And it was this basic love which was in Paul’s heart which led him to a wonderful spirit of hopefulness; so that even towards the end of his second letter he can speak of his “hope, that as your faith groweth, we shall be magnified in you” (2 Cor. 10:15 RV).
This love of Paul found at least some response from Corinth. Titus told Paul of their feelings for him: " He told us your earnest desire (for Paul), your mourning, your fervent mind toward me; so that I rejoiced the more" (2 Cor.7:7). Here they were, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and Gentiles of the Gentiles; in a state of spiritual love with each other. The strange paradox of Paul's great love for them, yet also his repugnance at their evil ways, is perhaps explicable in terms of their spiritual 'in-loveness'. As a spiritual sister (cp. Abigail?) can marry an alcoholic (Nabal?) because she sees the good side in him, whilst not turning a blind eye to his drinking; as a father ever loves wayward children; so Paul felt towards his beloved sons, his attractive young bride (2 Cor.11:2) of Corinth. That there was at least some love for Paul by Corinth is made tragically evident from 2 Cor. 12:15: " The more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" . This is surely the language of falling out of love. And Paul was the aggrieved party. As with so many a father and young husband, Paul had to go through the pain of sensing that the object of his love was keeping him at arm's length, was being partial in their response to the great love he was showing: " Ye have acknowledged us (our love) in part , that we are your rejoicing" (2 Cor.1:14). Yet Paul took great comfort from their albeit partial response: " Now I praise you brethren, that ye remember me in all things" (1 Cor.11:2); whilst struggling on to make them realize the intensity of his feelings towards them: " Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears (picture the old boy sobbing as he moved his quill)...that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you" (2 Cor.2:4). Despite the spiteful way in which they demanded Paul bring letters of recommendation with him (2 Cor.3:1), Paul jumped at their even partial spiritual response (1) : " Great is my glorying of you! I am filled with comfort, I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation" because of their positive spiritual reaction to the visit of Titus (2 Cor.7:4).
It is often implied that Paul was perfectly happy to put up with the mess at Corinth, and that therefore we should not be unduly concerned at the state of our latter day ecclesias. This could just not be further from the truth. Perhaps the greatest indication of Paul's love for Corinth is seen in his apparent severity towards them, his desire that they really should abide in Christ. Thus in 1 Cor.4:21 Paul parallels coming to them in love with coming " with a rod" . The sarcasm of 1 Cor.4:8-14 (and many other places), his hard words of 1 Cor.3:1-3, all indicate that he saw Corinth for the apostates which they were; and responded to this. " If I come again, I will not spare...know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" (2 Cor. 13:2,5). This was more than the externally strict schoolteacher with a soft heart, more than dad just laying the law down one evening. What Paul was threatening was radical; it may be that he would have used the power of the Holy Spirit to smite them with literal death(2). 1 Cor. 11:30 would imply that either Paul or another apostle had done this to them on a previous visit. " I am jealous over you with Godly jealousy" (2 Cor.11:2) is one of a series of allusions in that chapter to the events of Num.25, where Phinehas was moved with jealousy to slay those who were " unequally yoked" with the things of Belial (cp. 2 Cor.6:14). Paul had accused his Corinthians of just that; and he was quite willing to play the role of Phinehas.
" I will bewail many that have sinned...if I come again, I will not spare" (2 Cor.12:21; 13:2) is actually an allusion to Ez.8:18: " Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here (in the natural and spiritual temple of Yahweh, cp. 2 Cor.6:16)?...therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them" . God's anger with Israel as expressed at the Babylonian invasion was going to be reflected in Paul's 'coming' to spiritual Israel in Corinth. Yet for all his high powered allusions, Paul mixed them with the most incredible expressions of true love and sympathy for Corinth. In this we see the giant spiritual stature of that man Paul.
No Blind Eye
Paul evidently did not turn a blind eye to his brethren's failures. He spoke of them in one breath as being spiritually complete, whilst in the next he showed that he was truly aware of their failures. There's a glaring example of this in 1 Cor. 5:6,7: " A little leaven (which they had in their bad attitude, and also in the presence of the incestuous brother) leaveneth the whole lump. Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened" . They had leaven; otherwise Paul would not have told them to purge it out. But then he tells them that they are " unleavened" . In other words, he saw them as if they were unleavened, but he recognized that they had the bad leaven among and within them. There's another blatant example of this in 1 Cor.8:1,4,7: " As touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge...(v.4) we know that an idol is nothing in the world...(v.7) howbeit there is not in every man (in the ecclesia) that knowledge" . So Paul starts off by saying that they all knew about the correct attitude to meat offered to idols. But then he recognizes that in reality, not all of them did know, or at best, they did not appreciate what they knew. 1 Cor.11:2 has more of the same: " I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you" ; but then Paul goes on to show how they had blatantly disobeyed the ordinance he delivered them concerning the breaking of bread (3). Again, Paul sees the Corinthians as if they were perfect, but then goes on to point out their failures. This is surely a reflection of how the Lord Jesus sees each of us His people. 1 Cor. 3:1,18 shows how the Corinthians thought they were wise, when actually Paul could only address them as carnal babes in Christ; they were not " wise" . Yet in 1 Cor. 10:15 Paul concludes a section with the words: " I speak as to wise men..." . He treated them as if they were wise, when he knew that they weren't in reality. He begins by rejoicing that “in every thing ye are enriched by him…in all knowledge” (1 Cor. 1:5), even though this was only potentially true- they had been given the knowledge, but had failed to turn it into true wisdom. Likewise Paul spells it out to them that their behaviour was likely to exclude them from the Kingdom; but in the same context he speaks as if it is taken as red that they will be in the Kingdom: " The saints shall judge the world. And if the world shall be judged by you...we shall judge Angels" (1 Cor. 6:2,3,9).
It is so significant that Paul did not turn a blind eye to his brethren's faults. In seeking to be positive, we so often do this. But we are asked to relate to each other, as Christ does to us. And he certainly doesn't turn a blind eye to our failures. Yet our problem is that if we don't turn a blind eye, we find it so hard to relate to our brethren. So what is the secret of being able to look at both the good and bad sides of our brethren? I suggest the answer is something along these lines:
At baptism, a new man was born inside us, personified in the New Testament as " the man Christ Jesus" , " the Spirit" , etc. Yet there is still the devil within us, a personification of our sinfulness. We identify our real selves as our spiritual man (note how Paul refers to that side of him as " I myself" in Rom. 7:25). God looks upon us as if we are Christ Jesus, He sees us as justified in Him, He sees us as if we are as perfect as Christ; not that we are in ourselves, of course. This is how He wants us to view our brethren; if we see them as God sees us, we will see them as the spiritual man which they have within them. Yet like God, we will not turn a blind eye to their weaknesses. Paul looked ahead to the day when God would have confirmed Corinth " unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor.1:8). We too need to try to live the Kingdom life now; we must live as if we are in the day of Christ's Kingdom (Rom.13:12,13). So in some ways we must see our brethren as they will be in the Kingdom. Thus in 2 Cor.10:6,15 Paul speaks about the day when Corinth's " obedience is fulfilled...when your faith is increased...we shall be enlarged by you...abundantly" . " We are your rejoicing, even as ye also are ours, in the day of the Lord Jesus . And in this confidence I was minded to come unto you..." (2 Cor.1:14). Paul's confidence in them was on account of the rejoicing he looked forward to having concerning them at the day of judgment. Some of his final words to them totally summarize his attitude: " This also we wish, even your perfection" (2 Cor.13:9). He looked earnestly towards the day when they would be spiritually matured. We too must recognize that we are all only children. We must look to what both we and our brethren will be one day, in spiritual terms. This certainly takes some spiritual vision. Yet Paul had just this: ...having hope, when [not ‘if’] your faith is increased, that we shall be enlarged by you” (2 Cor. 10:15). He here recognizes that their faith is now weak, and must increase; but he also had written that they were to remain standing in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13). They were weak in faith; this he recognized. But he recognized their status as being ‘in the faith’. So concerned was he with them that he says that if they were obedient to what he had asked them, then he would be ready to “revenge all disobedience” (2 Cor. 10:6). It’s as if he was taking them one step at a time in bringing them to realize their errors; like the Lord, he spoke the word to men as they were able to hear it, not as he was able to expound it or expose their failures. We are seeking the salvation and betterment of our brethren, not simply to air our perceptions of their inadequacies.
Corinth: Washed And Sanctified
He saw Corinth as truly saved in prospect, by reason of their being in Christ. He quotes the words of Lev. 26:13 “I will dwell in them and walk in them...and they shall be my God” about Corinth (2 Cor. 6:16)- even though those words were said to be describing a status conditional upon Israel’s obedience. " He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us (not 'hopefully, if you get your act together!') with you" (2 Cor.4:14) sounds as if Paul fully expected the Corinthians to be there, and to be joined at the right hand side of the judgment seat by himself and Titus. 1 Cor.15:51 has the same certainty of their acceptance: " We shall be changed" . " We (Paul and Corinth) know...we have a building of God...eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor.5:1), i.e. the spiritual man Christ Jesus within each man who is in Christ. Truly could Paul write: " Our hope of you is steadfast, knowing that, as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so should ye be also of the consolation" (2 Cor.1:7). They, woolly Corinth, would judge the world in the Millennium (1 Cor. 6:2). " The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all " (2 Cor.13:14) must have taken some writing, even under inspiration. " Be with you all " would have included those Judaist-influenced brethren hell-bent on destroying Paul's work and image, those who had sinned grievously, and those whose doctrinal appreciation was starting to slip. Yet this was how Paul saw them; as being in Christ, and abiding in the love of God and fellowship of the Holy Spirit; thanks to their baptism into Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and abiding (at least for that present time) in that blessed relationship. 2 Cor.11:2 even shows Paul likening Corinth ecclesia to the guileless Eve in Eden, not yet having sinned, all innocence and uncorrupted beauty. And yet he saw himself as the Eve who had been deceived and punished by death (Rom. 7:11,13 = Gen. 2:17; 3:13); but he saw them as the Even who had not yet sinned. This was no literary trick of the tail; he genuinely felt and saw them as better than hismelf to be- such was the depth of his appreciation of his own failures. Paul saw Corinth as abounding in knowledge and love (2 Cor. 8:7), even though they had some who lacked the basic knowledge of God (1 Cor. 15:34), and they needed exhortation to confirm their love to the disfellowshipped brother (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Likewise, unfaithful Israel is still addressed as " the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing" (Jer. 18:13); she was seen as a virgin right up until the Babylonian invasion, where she was as it were ‘raped’ (Jer. 14:17 Heb.). We reflect the same paradox in our efforts to see evidently weak brethren as still sanctified in Christ.
Having spoken of fornicators, idolaters, thieves etc., all of whom were found within the Corinth ecclesia, Paul says: " But such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the spirit of our God" (1 Cor.6:11). The reference to washing, and the Father, Son and Spirit all points back to baptism for the remission of sins (Mt. 28:19). The fact those people had been baptized meant so much to Paul. The significance of our brethren's baptisms should also make a deep impact on ourselves. By this act they became " in Christ" . The Corinthians were committing idolatry, fornication etc. Paul was aware of that. But he was prepared to see them as being sanctified in Christ; he counted them as if this was not happening: for the time being. There was coming a time when he would no longer accept that they were in Christ, and when he would not spare them in any way (2 Cor.13:2). The repented of failures of our brethren, however severe they may seem to us, must be overlooked if there is real evidence that they are making effort to abide in Christ. Unrepentant fornication or idolatry is hardly proof of this. " We pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor.5:20) indicates that Paul did not see them as reconciled to God; yet he looked at the man Christ Jesus within them in order to be able to have all the positive feelings towards them which he did. So clear was Paul's vision of their spiritual man that he could actually boast about their 'good side' to other ecclesias (2 Cor. 7:4,14; 9:2). So enthusiastic was Paul about the great grace of God which Corinth basked in, that he actually made other ecclesias truly affectionate of Corinth: " which long after you for the exceeding grace (Paul knew just how exceeding it was to Corinth!) in you" (2 Cor.9:14).
And Paul showed this same spirit in all his dealings with his brethren. He could say in all honesty that “I am convinced, my brothers, that you are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14 NIV)- even though there must have been major problems in Rome, not least the Jew: Gentile division. He was so positive about them that he could write that he was sure that Corinth’s labour was “not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58)- and yet he knew that labour was in vain if converts fell away (1 Thess. 3:5). Yet he acted towards them, and genuinely felt as if, they would not and had not fallen away. This was quite some psychological and spiritual achievment, given the depths of their apostacy. Corinth hated Paul, slandered him, despised him. And yet he can write that their love for him "abounded" (2 Cor. 8:7). I take this not as sarcasm, but as a deep attempt by him to view them positively. We are challenged by Paul’s example to look at our brethren the same way.
" As God...hath forgiven"
We are told to forgive one another, " as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph.4:32). All our sins were forgiven, in prospect, at baptism. All our irritating habits and attitudes, our secret sins, all these were forgiven then. And we must respond to this by counting our brethren to have received the same grace. Seeing we have received this grace, why do we find it so hard to see our brethren like this? Surely the answer rests in the fact that we don't fully believe or appreciate the degree to which God really does see us personally as being perfect in Christ. Paul was so super-assured of his own salvation, of the fact that God really did see him as a man in Christ, and therefore he found it easier to see his brethren in such a positive way. He was so conscious of how his many sins were just not counted against him. He knew that he was " chief of sinners" , he didn't turn a blind eye to himself; because he could realistically face up to his own position before God, he found it easier to do the same for his weak brethren.
The fact that Paul saw the spiritual man in all his brethren means that to some degree he saw them all as equal. He seems to bring this point out in 1 Cor. 4:14,17: " As my beloved sons I warn you (Corinth ecclesia)...for this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son..." . Paul calls both Corinth and Timothy his beloved sons. The implication is that to some degree, he felt the same towards dodgy Corinth as he did towards the spiritually strong Timothy. Likewise Christ showed his love for the whole church when he died on the cross. This does not mean, of course, that Paul did not have deeper bonds with some than with others. But the fact is that in spiritual terms, he saw all his brethren as equal, in that they shared the same status of being justified in Christ. Whether one had 2% righteousness and another 5% was irrelevant; they both needed the massive imputation of God's righteousness through Christ. As Paul could call both Timothy and Corinth his " beloved sons" , so God calls both Christ and ourselves by the same title (Mt.3:17 cp. Col.3:12; 1 Jn.3:2; 2 Thess.2:13) . The reason? Because " he hath made us accepted (by being) in the beloved (son) " (Eph.1:6).
" Yours, and yours, and yours..."
This equality of love for each of us is something which I find quite surpassing in its wonder. The bread and wine are equally divided amongst us, each of us partake of the love of Christ. By this we should all be equalled, levelled out. We are each justified by faith in his blood, we are each brought up to the same peerless standard of Christ's righteousness. We rejoice together in equal hope of the glory of God. I recall Stewart Algar ending a talk at Norwood with a verse about the love of Christ, which I scribbled at the back of my Bible:
" The love that I have is the life that I have,
And the love that I have is all that I have,
And it's yours, and yours, and yours..." .
Appendix: Jude, Peter And Corinth
A case can be made that the letters of Peter and Jude were also written to Corinth. Peter visited Corinth, presumably focusing his preaching on the Jewish community, and perhaps he was writing his letters specifically to the Jewish house churches there (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). The same concerns are apparent as in Paul's letters to Corinth: The need to distinguish between spiritual and unspiritual persons who despised others (Jude 19 = 1 Cor. 2:6 - 3:4; 8:1-3); those who perverted liberty into licence (Jude 4 = 1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23), becoming slaves of sensuality (Jude 8,10,16,23 = 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 12:21); some eating and drinking abusively at the love feast (Jude 12 = 1 Cor. 11:17-33); refusing the authority of their elders (Jude 8,11 = 1 Cor. 4:8-13; 9:1-12); both Peter and Paul warn Corinth of the danger of worldly wisdom. Peter's reminder to them about the authority of Paul is very understandable in this case. However, the point of all this is to observe the tenderness of Peter and Jude in writing to the Corinthians ["my beloved..."], whilst at the same time warning them of the awesome judgment which there behaviour was preparing for them. It was the same passionate love for Christ's weak brethren which Paul showed them.
(1) It is significant that when dealing with Corinth's belief of those who sought to totally black Paul's character, he writes: " I write not these things (his answer to their allegations) to shame you..." (1 Cor.4:14). Yet when dealing with their doctrinal apostacy, Paul does seek to shame them: " Some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame" (1 Cor. 15:34).
(2) For more on this see James pp. 99,125.
(3) It has been well argued that " Now I praise you, brethren..." in 1 Cor.11:2 is one of many examples of Paul using irony to bring home to the Corinthians the enormity of their errors. See the exposition of 1 Cor. 11 in Mark Morris, Man and Woman In Christ (Pub. Cambridge City Ecclesia). The alternative view is presented in the above study; i.e. Paul's love for Corinth was such that one moment he saw them in exalted spiritual terms due to their place in Christ, whilst immediately going on to recognize their errors. There are so many examples of this in the Corinthian epistles that 1 Cor.11:2 comfortably fits into place with this approach.