Preaching from First Corinthians

Ken Hemphill  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 45 - Fall 2002

As President of Southwestern I am frequently asked by church members to recommend persons to their search committee to serve in the role of pastor.   On the other hand, I am also frequently sought out by graduating students and alumni, who would like for me to help   them find a place of service. This is usually a joyous process,, But occasionally I find that some churches have established such a negative reputation, that it is difficult to find some­ one who wants to be recommended to these churches fraught with problems. Perhaps they have been harsh in   their treatment of former pastors or staff. In other cases they have a history of conflict and division in the church. In many cases their reputation in the community has been so severely eroded that it has become difficult to encourage community members to visit the church.

When I teach 1 Corinthians, I have our students read straight through the book several times. I will frequently ask whether any of them would like to be recommended as pastor of this church. I rarely have any takers. Yet, all of us who pastor will face many of the problems, in some form or another that are reflected in 1 Corinthians. For that reason this book provides wonderful preaching material for the teaching of sound doctrine and the correction of potential problems within the fellowship.


The Corinthian Context

The church at Corinth was well known in the community but not because they had a positive   marketing campaign. Some of the members of the church were willing to take their disputes into the public arena. Members of the church insisted on their rights, whether it was the freedom to dine in a pagan temple or for the women to speak in the assembly with their heads uncovered. Corinth may have been buzzing about the last time the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Some left hungry while the wealthiest members may have left over-fed and a bit tipsy.

The church had been scandalized by the news that a man was sleeping with his stepmother. It is even more surprising that some were not upset over this news. They were even boasting that such behavior was proof of their advanced spirituality. In truth, the church was divided on several   issues. Some claimed to belong to Paul, others Apollos or Cephas, while some simply argued they were for Christ.

The whole community was confused about the matter of spiritual gifts. Some claimed to speak with the tongues of angels. These folks saw their abundance of spiritual gifts as proof that they were spiritually advanced. This claim had caused others to see themselves as second-class citizens since they did not manifest these spectacular gifts. What was going on in Corinth?

Fortunately, the two Corinthian letters, along with knowledge about the city of Corinth, provide us with an abundance of material with which to build a reasonably accurate picture of the church at Corinth and thus inform our preaching. The ancient city of Corinth enjoyed great commercial wealth due to its geographical location. It was situated on an isthmus linking Greece with the Peloponnesian Peninsula and could therefore boast of two significant harbors. It sat at the crossroads of two significant trade routes.

The population of Corinth was diverse cosmopolitan and often wealthy. A prominent feature of’ Corinth was the city’s temple devoted to the worship of Aphrodite. Thus the city attracted many whose primary purpose was to enjoy illicit pleasure. The name of the city gave birth to several words in the Greek language, which were used to express a life of luxury and licentious living. In addition to its commercial role Corinth was the home to the Isthmian games, which were ‘second in popularity only to the Olympic games. We must understand Paul’s ministry and his letter to the Corinthians in the cultural context of this thriving metropolitan community with its mix of people and beliefs thrown into a climate of wealth and sexual perrmss1veness. No doubt you can already see the relevance to the context in which we live.

Paul ministered in Corinth for eighteen months. He lodged with Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome. He began his mm1stry m the synagogue, but soon moved to the house of, Justus, next door to the synagogue (Acts 18:1-17). Paul s early converts in Corinth included both Jews and devout pagans, who had become dissatisfied with the pagan life and had attached themselves to the synagogue. These “God-fearers” were often receptive to the gospel.

After Paul left Corinth, the work was earned on by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). Other leaders visited Corinth. Some like Apollos augmented Paul’s message, while others appear to have created considerable theological confusion. Some time after his departure, Paul wrote a first letter that was misunderstood (5:9) and thus the letter we call 1 Corinthians replaced it.

Members of the Corinthian church kept Paul abreast of the news. The household of Chloe, a wealthy merchant, brought Paul disheartening news that divisions had erupted in the fellowship. Apparently the Corinthian church sent Paul a letter seeking clarification on certain issues that had become divisive. Paul’s answers to this letter are prefaced with the phrase “now concerning” and begin in 1 Corinthians 7:1. From this wealth of material, the Holy Spirit moved Paul to write a powerful letter of correction and instruction that will aid us in instructing the church m the twenty-first century.


Key Theological Issues

You will find that the problems facing Paul in the writing of the Corinthian letter are remarkably similar to the problems confronting you and the members of your church. We should not be surprised because the sin nature makes us all susceptible to the same failings, generation to generation. I am continually awed by the contemporary relevance of God’s Word and by its inherent power to confront and resolve the challenges facing the church in every generation. Let me suggest just a few that might help you develop several fresh preaching ideas from 1 Corinthians.

Spiritual Elitism

At the very core of the distorted view of spirituality in Corinth was the conviction on the part of some that they were “spiritual persons” in an elitist sense. “Spiritual person” is my translation for the Greek word pneumatikos, which is from the root pneuma, meaning “spirit.” This word occurs only twenty-four times in all the Pauline Epistles and fifteen of those occurrences are found in 1 Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1 Paul stated that he could not refer to them as spiritual persons (obviously their preference) because they were bickering and fighting like children. Their behavior and their claim to spiritual maturity were contradictory. Paul began the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 by answering a question from the Corinthians, which must have implied that the possession of certain spiritual gifts proved advanced spirituality. Paul’s first corrective was the declaration that no one could declare Jesus as Lord except by the Holy Spirit (12:3). In other words the proof of the Spirit is the new birth and its consequent lifestyle change, not the possession of any specific gift. Certain showy spiritual gifts were at the heart of the claim to be spiritual persons since they seemed to give verifiable proof of advanced spirituality.

Possession of certain dramatic gifts had given the spirituals a distorted image of themselves. The word “to puff up” or “make arrogant” occurs only seven times in the New Testament and six are found in 1 Corinthians. The word “boast” is found fifty-three times and thirty-five of those are in this letter. The spirituals were puffed-up and therefore they boasted to others about their spiritual status.

Such spiritual elitism often leads to and over-evaluation of human leaders and to divisions within the fellowship of the church. We certainly can find evidence of that in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. I think it is unlikely that the spirituals were an organized group of persons in Corinth. It does not even appear that the persons who claimed to be spirituals had a clearly defined theological understanding of gifts. It is more likely that their zeal for gifts came from their fascination with the supernatural and a zest for religious ecstasy. They were like excited children in a candy store. They relied more on their experience than on revelation.

Paul faced a pastoral dilemma. He did not want to quench the spiritual enthusiasm of these young believers, but he did want to direct it toward more mature goals. While some members were zealous for ecstatic religious experiences, the next powerful teacher, and their own rights; others had responded with a calculated coolness of spiritual matters. We face the same dilemma in the church today. Some church members flit from church to church seeking a moving, spiritual experience, while others do not want to talk about the Holy Spirit for fear they might fall into the same trap. Preaching through 1 Corinthians will help our people to avoid both extremes.

A Magical View of Religion

The spirituals had a crude and almost superstitious view of the spiritual life. In 10:3-4 Paul employed the word “spiritual” three times when referring to the Israelites’ sojourn under Moses. The use of the word “baptized,” the reference to the spiritual food and drink, and the ensuing discussion leads us to conclude that some in Corinth had a distorted view of religious observances, such as the Lord’s Supper and baptism, believing them to impart mysterious supernatural power.

This magical view of grace had caused some to place great significance on the person who had baptized them. In the very first chapter (vv. 13-16) Paul reminds them that he had baptized few of them. In chapter 10, he used the picture of the Israelites who were baptized into Moses and had eaten spiritual food and had drunk spiritual drink and yet were laid low in the wilderness because of their immoral behavior, to warn them against any magical view of grace.

A magical view of the Lord’s table had created critical problems in the community. It had led to the neglect of the true purpose and meaning of the fellowship meal that preceded the Lord’s Supper. Thus, instead of creating fellowship and mutual concern, it had caused dissension. Paul tells them that when they behave in this manner they have not taken the Lord’s Supper. A proper understanding of the table would have led to humility and edification.

You might at first be tempted to think that this magical view of religion does not exist today. Yet there are persons who think that walking down an aisle or participating in baptism will gain them salvation. This same superstitious attitude is detected when someone uses prayer of participation m the Lord’s Supper or Mass as a religious talisman. Some people think that wearing a cross or other items of religious jewelry offers divine protection. Still others believe that ecstatic experience assures them of spiritual position and authority. The belief that any religious activity or experience, not accompanied by true repentance and conversion can give a person right standing with God demonstrates a magical and unbiblical view of grace. These distorted views of grace are dangerous because they can inoculate us from true spirituality. A true understanding of grace will take us back to the cross, the very essence of Paul’s preaching.

A Hunger for Special Wisdom

Those who regarded themselves as spirituals claimed to possess special wisdom and knowledge which gave them insight into the mysteries of God’s plan (2:6-9). Paul corrected the arrogant claim of the spirituals to a special wisdom by insisting that their wisdom was earthly wisdom and therefore foolishness compared to the wisdom of God 3:18-19). The most important corrective passage concerning wisdom is 2:6-16, where Paul utilized the vocabulary of the spirituals to turn the table and demonstrate the content of true wisdom. True wisdom was not a private insight into the mysteries of God, but a clear understanding of the cross of Christ. The truly spiritual person would thus recognize the things freely given by God (v. 12). This emphasis on God’s grace is a primary corrective to the distorted view of the spirituals.

The spirituals believed that their special wisdom and knowledge gave them special insight into the realities of Christian existence in the here and now. For example, on   one occas10n a claim to special knowledge had been used to justify behavior that had created difficulties in the church concerning the eating of idol meat (see ch. 8). It is likely that Paul echoed the boast of the spirituals in verse 1: “We know that we all have knowledge.” On the basis of this sup­ posed knowledge, the spirituals had concluded that idols were nothing (v. 4) and eating meat offered to idols had no consequences.

Paul countered by arguing that their knowledge was not as full as they imagined. “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know” (v. 2). True knowledge would have led to loving, edifying behavior toward the brethren. Their knowledge had led only to arrogant boasting.

Our people can be confused when they hear someone claim that God has given them a particular vision or insight into Scripture hidden from the church at large. This speaker can then call on people to respond in a certain way based   on this special knowledge. The hearers are in a quandary. They must accept this word and respond appropriately or assume that the individual is mistaken or deceitful. In 2 Corinthians Paul will concede that he too had a visionary experience. Yet he declares that what he experienced was not communicable (12:1-4). Paul preferred to teach the intelligible and edifying message of the cross rather than import some mystical message derived from special knowledge.

A Confusion Concerning Eschatology

Some of the Corinthians were confused about issues related to the end of time. The word “spiritual” occurs four times in 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 in a manner that suggests that Paul had found it necessary to correct an overrealized eschatology. Some of the Corinthians believed that they already possessed all the supernatural powers and blessings which heaven had to offer. To correct this false understanding, Paul emphasized that the present body was “perish­ able,” “sown in dishonor,” “sown in weakness,” and “sown as a natural body.” The spirituals, however, had no place in their theology for weakness or dishonor in the present existence.

Paul did acknowledge that the resurrection body will be “raised in glory,” “raised in power,” and “raised a spiritual body.” The spirituals thought that they already participated in the full glory and power of the Lord. Thus Paul would concede that there is “a spiritual body” (v. 44). But he would insist that there is a spiritual body but that it is not first-it must follow the planting of the natural body (v. 46). Notice further that Paul concluded his discussion of the resurrection with a call to responsible Christian behavior in the present. “Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (v. 58). The spirituals were so heavenly minded, they were no earthly good. Paul exhorted them to come back to earth and be steadfast in the work of the Lord.

This mistaken eschatological understanding is actually reflected in an earlier section of the letter. Paul summarized their view: “You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become Icings without us” (4:8). Paul then compared their present exalted status and greatness to the weakness and dishonor of the apostles. We can find a similar distorted, overrealized eschatology today but in a slightly subtler form. One does not have to watch or listen to some television or radio preachers long to hear them proclaim that the kingdom of God has already come in its full expression. He then assures the listener that no Christian should be sick, suffer discouragement, or be poor. Overrealized eschatology is at the heart of the “health, wealth, and success gospel.” Unfortunately it is often closely joined to a distorted view of gifts which are sought for their sign value and arrogantly displayed, with little concern for the edification of the body. Preaching through 1 Corinthians will provide a valuable opportunity to correct this dangerous, false belief.

We Do Not Need Rules

Spiritual arrogance had caused some Corinthians to have a warped understanding of freedom. They actually believed that their freedom had lifted them above the norms of Christian morality, tradition and sexual-role distinctions.

Paul quoted their slogan in 6:12 and 10:23: “All things are lawful.” In each case Paul quickly brings a corrective to their boast that all things are lawful.

Their supposed exalted status had made irrelevant or even praiseworthy such bodily activities as sexual immorality. Paul drew special attention to one flagrant case of immorality. One man was living with his stepmother in an incestuous relationship. This affair was common knowledge in the Christian community. No attempt had been made to conceal it. On the contrary, some had boasted about it because it demonstrated their freedom from the moral restrictions of conventional religious life ( 5:2-6).

While at first we may be shocked to think that a church member would boast concerning sexual sin, yet we still see people today who believe that their spirituality places them above reproof. This issue is alive from pulpit to pew.

Popular pastors and evangelists of various denominational persuasions have been guilty of sexual sin. Some appear truly repentant, but others give the impression that such behavior does not affect them. Their superior gifts and advanced spirituality has placed them on another level than the average believer. Divorce, sexual sin, and other forms of unethical behavior have invaded the church. We must constantly beware of a distorted view of spirituality, which divorces itself from ethical conduct.

There are other curious problems that emerged from   an arrogant insistence on freedom. The matter of eating meat offered to idols or attending events at a pagan temple was, for some, an issue of freedom. Why should they not eat the meat offered to idols? Some of the weak brethren were offended! That was their problem and a sign of their spiritual weakness.

The right of a woman to pray or prophesy in public had almost certainly become an issue of freedom for some of the women intent on making a public statement (ch. 11). Thus, they were willing to neglect the traditions of the church about proper decorum in the worship service. Paul corrected this distorted “no-laws” mentality with his insistence that the truly mature, spiritual person would gladly surrender personal freedom for the sake of the gospel and the need of the brethren (ch. 9).

I think you can see the contemporary relevance of this book for church health. The chapters of 1 Corinthians cry out for sound exposition. You will find that a series on this book will be well-received and of great value to the church. Like Paul you should keep the focus on the cross and the grace which flows from that cross. Those are the twin themes of corrective, which run like a river throughout this letter.


Preparing to Preach

Everyone has his own routine for preparing to preach. I will share a strategy that has served me well throughout my ministry. You will feel free to modify it to fit your own personal style. You will note that I have a strong preference for expository preaching and for preaching through books. For that reason I would approach 1 Corinthians with the anticipation for preaching through the entire book. You might, however, desire to pick certain passages that will enable you to deal with certain theological issues confronting your own church. For example you could preach a series of several months’ duration on spiritual gifts. You could also preach a month long series on the resurrection- out of 1 Corinthians 15. Some persons who will choose to preach through the entire book will not necessarily deal with every single verse. They may instead choose larger thematic blocks of text. You must determine which pattern better suits your style and the needs of your church. For all who desire to preach from 1 Corinthians, a few hints will help you to develop a relevant, biblical, and hard-hitting sermon series.

  1. Spend adequate time with the text. The text should determine your preaching strategy. Read the entire letter in one sitting. Repeat this process several times from various translations. Another variation on this practice is to listen to an audio version of 1 Corinthians. If you have facility with Greek, I would suggest that you follow in your Greek text as you listen to the audio version. You will be surprised at the unique nuances you will hear that you may have overlooked in your own reading. After having read the entire book several times, you will begin writing down your first impressions and insights. Each and every time you approach God’s Word you should bathe your reading time in prayer and expect the Holy Spirit to give you new insights.
  2. Develop your own outline of the letter. Many preachers and Bible teachers have a tendency to rely on other commentators too quickly. You should develop your own outline of the letter. Do not confuse this outline with preaching outlines that you may use each week. This outline will certainly help with the preaching outlines, but may be quite different. At this point I attempt only to under­ stand the flow of the letter.
  3. Develop your own understanding of the context of the letter. In other words, you should write your own introduction to the book before you begin to read commentaries that may help you as you preach on this book. You will need to answer questions such as authorship, recipients, situation in Corinth, major themes, etc. I allow this material to flow out of my reading of the letter. The reason that you should do this on your own before you read the introductory material of several commentaries, is that you want to allow God to give you fresh insights into His word. I find that if I read the commentaries first, it limits my own thinking and inhibits my dependence upon the Spirit to interpret His word. You will find this to be   one of the most rewarding aspects of your study as you prepare to preach God’s precious
  4. Read several reliable commentaries. You want to ensure that you are being faithful to teach God’s word accurately, and therefore you will want to check your insights against the findings of reliable scholarship. Read through several introductions and add pertinent notes to those that you have already compiled during your personal study. I read the pertinent sections of commentary each week as I am preparing to preach on a particular text.
  5. Sketch a road map to the entire series. Before I begin to work on the detailed outline and exegesis for a particular sermon, I attempt to sketch out a working outline for the entire series. For example, I may determine that I am going to preach through the entire book and that I plan to cover the material   in twenty messages. This decision will be based on my work outlining the book and looking at the whole and determining how best to teach/preach the material in the life of the church. I now lay out before me the   church year taking into account special events or emphases that are already on the calendar. You will have to make the decision as to whether you will break the series for Easter or graduation Sunday, etc. You should also take into account your own schedule and the Sundays you will be away. The longer the series the greater the possibility of interruption. You will find that such interruptions are often used of the Lord to great effect. At this point, I want to know where I am going with the series and how I plan to get there. I develop a one-page tentative outline for each sermon in the series and I put each in a file folder and date it based on the Sunday that it will be delivered. These outlines will be modified and improved upon as the time for preaching a particular text draws near. You will also find that having the folders available and the series in mind will allow you to collect sermon illustrations throughout the year. The Holy Spirit will so sensitize you to the thrust of your series that you will see illustrations in the process of your everyday events. You can jot these down or cut them from the paper or the magazine and place them in the appropriate folder, thus building a file of illustrations for the entire series.
  6. Do thorough exegetical preparation each week. As the series proceeds you will retrieve each folder in turn and do your exegetical study as you prepare to preach. I have often found it helpful to work on several sermons at a time. Consecutive texts often flow into each otherso well that I write two sermons while in my study. I always feel a freedom to revise my original outline as the series progresses, but I often find that my first insights serve me well. In any case, the file that has the original outline and any illustrative material that I have collected, spur my thinking each week so that I am not starting in a vacuum.
  7. In your preaching be faithful to the original meaning and context before you make any current-day application. Some preachers are so anxious to proceed to the application of the text, that they ignore both the historical context and the original meaning of the text. You will find that your preaching has greater depth and richness if you help your listeners to visit ancient Corinth with you before you bring them into the twenty-first century. They will also see that you are being faithful to the text and not distorting the meaning to make a point you believe the church needs to hear.

Trust me, the Holy Spirit will make the application come alive to the current-day needs of your congregation.


A Few Helpful Commentaries

I have included a list of a few commentaries you may want to purchase as you anticipate doing a series on 1 Corinthians. Your budget may not allow you to purchase the entire set and therefore you will want to thumb through them to see which would be best for your library. I must thank Bruce Corley for assistance with this list and for the brief comments that may aid you in your commentary shopping.

Books for Preaching through First Corinthians

For viewing the letter as a whole, developing sermon outlines, and coming to grips with issues in quick fashion, there are several helpful expositions that do not require knowledge of Greek or extensive reading:

Blomberg, Craig L. 1 Corinthians. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
This volume in the Application series is top rate because Blomberg does an excellent job of bridging contexts between what Paul said and how that applies to the contemporary scene.

Carson, D. A. Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Grand Rapids, Baker, 1987.

The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
These two studies are difficult to acquire but worth the search. Carson pays close attention to the theological issues at stake and marks out a helpful trail for the preacher to follow.

Glen, J. Stanley. Pastoral Problems in First Corinthians. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964.
This book may be hard to find but will prove a valuable resource for preaching. Glen views 1 Corinthians as one of the best sources for a knowledge of early pastoral care. Glen will provide valuable insights for preaching.

Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox, 1997.
Brevity, creative insight, and balanced perspectives are features of this book by a widely-read and highly­ skilled interpreter of Paul’s theology. The exposition pays attention to the Old Testament background and the convictional world of Paul.

Hemphill, Ken. Mirror Mirror on the Wall. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992.
About half of this book is dedicated to the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This may help you as you preach on the difficult issue of spiritual gifts.

Morris, Leon. The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Rev. ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
A standard, readable treatment by the well-known evangelical scholar. Morris makes brief, judicious comments but does not pursue application in any detail.

Prior, David. The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church. Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985.
The Bible Speaks Today series was produced with preachers in mind. Prior’s contribution divides the text into expository units and develops each one with attention to homiletical concerns.

Many passages in 1 Corinthians require careful and detailed study. When sermon development calls for a more technical (even Greek) explanation, the preacher should have recourse to the following works:

Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992.
Originally published in 1968, Barrett’s volume remains one of his best works and one of the best on 1 Corinthians. His theological analysis of the Corinthian situation is very insightful, and he usually captures a verse m a memorable way.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Thorough, comprehensive, rewarding-this volume has become an evangelical mainstay of exegesis. Fee tackles all the hard issues and usually comes out on target.

Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
This most recent commentary on the letter is a wide­ ranging encyclopedia of everything you want to know about 1 Corinthians and more. It requires some Greek ability but a larger measure of perseverance to sift

through the more than 1300 pages of exegesis. Witherington, Be, III. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
A very readable study of the first-century realities that shaped the city, culture, and church of Corinth.   An excellent resource for background and illustrative material.

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