The Bible isn’t a theology book. At least not a typical one.
Take Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, for example. It’s divided into seven major doctrines: The Doctrine of the Word, of God, of Man, of Christ and the Holy Spirit, of the Application of Redemption, of the Church and of the Future. Each doctrine-part contains five to eleven chapters with detailed discussions around appropriate Scriptures.
Open the Bible to the “Contents” page and, instead of theological topics, we find “books”. A “Study Bible” may group them by genre: law, history, poetry, prophecy, gospel, letters, etc. In vain we look for a chapter devoted to God’s grace or the work of the Holy Spirit. Doctrinal teachings lie scattered throughout the pages in all sorts of settings—from the garden of Eden to Israel’s wilderness wanderings to the reigns of kings to prayers, wars and the new creation.
God revealed himself not in sacred lecture, but in words spoken and works done in “ordinary” human life. True, he ordained law on the summit of the fearful “mountain of God”. And, yes, he gave the Book of Revelation in a bizarre vision to the apostle John. But the majority of his Old Testament revelation came in words and works among the nation of Israel. He supremely revealed himself in the person of his Son who “became a human being and lived among us” (John 1:14). And the majority of God’s New Testament revelation came in letters.
Which brings us to 1 Corinthians.
Traveling through Acts, we last left Paul in Ephesus. While there (53-55 A.D.), he was prompted to write to the Corinthian church he’d left in 51 or 52 A.D. That letter is lost to us. We know of it because Paul’s referred to it in 1 Corinthians 5:9—” I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people . . . ” (For more information about Corinth, see http://theoldpreacher.com/welcome-to-corinth/.)
Some time later, three men arrived in Ephesus with a letter from the Corinthians (“I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus . . . “—1 Corinthians 16:17). Dr. Gordon Fee comments: “Given the combative nature of so much of [Paul’s response to that letter in 1 Corinthians] it seems highly likely that in their letter they [took] considerable exception to several of his positions/prohibitions [in the “lost” letter]” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 7).
Not sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next? Why am I risking yawns with this nail-biting information? To point out the remarkable way God revealed himself. In a letter about church conflict, sexual immorality, marriage, idolatry, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts and resurrection! With no thunder and lightning, no earth quaking, no roped-off mountain. (Like the Law-giving revelation at Mount Sinai.) Just a letter. A letter to resolve problems.
And, let’s not sugar-coat it: this was a church with problems. In his little book, The Corinthian Correspondence, Russell P. Spittler, asks us to . . .
“Imagine a church like this one:
Members sue each other before civil courts. Others habitually attend social banquets honoring strange gods, mere idols. One brother lives in open immorality—and the church tolerates it. Others think it would be better for Christian couples to separate so they could be more ‘holy’.
Their worship services are shocking, anything but edifying. Speakers in tongues know no restraints. People come drunk to the Lord’s Supper, where they shy off into exclusive groups—each bragging about its favorite preacher. Visitors get the impression they are mad. Some doubt the Resurrection. And many have reneged on their financial pledges.”
Why so many problems? A brief look at Corinth city history will provide one answer . . .
When it was a Greek city-state, Corinth had been destroyed by Rome (146 B.C.) In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar refounded it as a Roman colony and populated it with freedmen. (Freedmen were slaves who’d found a legal way to be liberated.) Regarding populating Corinth with freedmen, Fee observes: “a convenient way for Rome to rid itself of trouble” (p. 2). (Freedmen often fueled moral corruption. In fact, Rome freed so many slaves some claim it led to Rome’s downfall.)
Corinth’s location was ideal for commerce. Fee: “Since money attracts people like dead meat attracts flies, prosperity returned to the city almost immediately. Corinth quickly experienced a great influx of people from both West and East, along with all the gains and ills of such growth . . . vice and religion flourished side by side . . . Sexual sin [was] of the same kind that one would expect in any seaport where money flowed freely and women and men were available . . . All the evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the ancient world” (p. 2,3).
Not surprisingly, then, the Corinthian church endured more than its share of troubles. What is surprising is the Holy Spirit directing Paul to preach the gospel in such a sin-hardened city. (We usually plant a church in a comfortable, growing, middle-class suburb.) And it’s remarkable that God chose to reveal himself in a letter written to the saved-from-sin of that city.
Why in an ordinary letter? The answer, I think, lies here . . .
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
The people God chose to save in Corinth couldn’t boast they were picked for their wisdom or power or noble birth. The glory of salvation belonged to God alone.
In the same way, God chose to reveal himself through an ordinary (though Spirit-inspired) letter. God humbles himself to make himself known to us through ways open to the lowest–and the most ordinary–of us.
Here on my desk lies my Bible, looking like any other book. Yet God has chosen to reveal himself through it. An ordinary means to an ordinary person. God is in those pages. Just as God was (and is) in the letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
And here is part of God’s message . . .
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 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 (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
He is God in an “ordinary” letter with extraordinary good news to ordinary sinners like us!