1 Corinthians 6: Growing into Our Identity in Christ

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

Where is your identity?

A friend of mine was involved in special operations as a professional soldier and spent time in places like Vietnam.  Here was a man who had engaged in fierce combat operations.  When I first met him and heard him talk, I thought that he was delusional—he talked about things that I would never have done; never could do.  What was normal for him, most of us would look on in horror in the movie theater.  But he was a soldier doing what soldiers are expected to do.  Out his identity as a soldier, he was able to bear those burdens years after year.  For him, the hard part was transitioning back into the life of a civilian and leaving the burdens of military life behind.  Now, as a civilian he has a new identity.

Our identities define both who we are and how we are expected to behave.

The Corinthian church had an identity problem.  In Corinth before Paul arrived, the rich exploited the poor, in part, through legal proceedings (vv 1-8).  In Corinth before Paul arrived, hard partying routinely included drunkenness, orgies, and prostitution—male and female (vv 9-10).  And the Corinthians even had proverbs to support their wild behavior.  Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food (v 13) is a proverb thought to be used analogously to condone sexual promiscuity.  When Paul established a church in Corinth, these attributes of the Corinthian identity did not change like one would turn on a light switch.  The Corinthians needed help in growing into their new identities in Christ.

What about us?  Is our primary identity in Christ?  Or is it in our profession, our ethnicity, our gender, our nationality, our social class or some other activity?  If our primarily identity is something other than Christ, we practice idolatry and suffer an idolater’s fate—an existential crisis when our idols fail us.  The unemployed workaholic is not only out of a paycheck; the workaholic has lost their primary source of identity—an idol has been crushed.  This causes an existential crisis.  If we act out of an identity that has been crushed, then our lives appear meaningless without direction or value.  Is it any wonder that drug use, suicide, and mass shootings are so common today?  The problem is not psychiatric; it is spiritual—God will not take second place in our lives; God is a jealous god (Exodus 20:3-8).

Much like the commandments in Exodus 20, Paul’s vice list in verses 9-10 is used to establish Christian identity through contrast.  If you are a Christian, then by definition you avoid doing these things.  Paul readily admits that some of the Corinthians used to do these things (v 11).  All sins are forgivable (other than denying salvation); lifestyles of sin call into question one’s true identity.  Paul’s guidance is interesting:  All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything (v 12).  Do we let sin dominate us?  If we do, we have a problem with a sinful lifestyle.

In closing chapter 6, Paul makes three arguments against sexual immorality:

  1. Since we are united with Christ, sexual immorality unites Christ with a prostitute—unthinkable! (v 15);
  2. Sexual immorality is sin against one’s own body—in other words, stupid (v 18); and
  3. Our bodies are the temple of God purchased at a price—we are not our own (vv 19-20).

But, our identities are in Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it:  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (v 11).

Where is your identity?

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1 Corinthians 5: Be Holy

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land (Exodus 12:19 ESV).

Is there any leaven in your life?

Say what?  In the middle of a discussion of sexual immorality, Paul gives us a lesson on leaven.  Jesus also talked about leaven saying:  Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15 ESV) [1].

In order to understand Paul’s point, it is helpful to distinguish leaven from yeast.  If you are confused, you are not alone—so are translators.  For example, the English Standard version translates ζύμη (v 6) as leaven while the New International Version translates it as yeast following freedom of translation in BDAG (3389 ζύμη).  Yeast is a single-cell fungi used to ferment in baking, wine making, and brewing not commonly available in ancient times.  Leaven is fermented dough.

In ancient times, leaven was kept for baking from week to week and would accumulate dirt and other impurities.  For this reason, once a year the Hebrews would toss out their leaven and start with a fresh batch (Exodus 12:19).  Paul’s lesson on leaven therefore had to do with allowing sin into your life through a gradual process of accumulation.

New York City made an interesting application of this lesson in the 1980s following the “broken glass theory”.  The basic idea was that crime is contagious.  If windows are broken and not cleaned up, people would conclude that no one cares and more windows would be broken.  Anarchy would spread.  So New York decides to launch a campaign to clean up the city block by block from 1984 to 1990.  Murder rates in New York declined by two-thirds[1].  What does the Bible say:  Be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45 ESV).  Get out that leaven!  Sweat the little stuff!  Children—make your bed!

In the Corinthian church the lesson on leaven focused on sexual immorality.  Paul uses two closely related words to discuss immorality here.  In verse 1, he uses πορνεία and later in verses 9-11 he uses πόρνος.  The first word, πορνεία, is a general term for sexually immoral acts and Paul’s specific application is a case of incest—a man sleeping with his father’s wife (not his mother; prohibited in Leviticus 18:8).  The second word, πόρνος, more narrowly focuses on a male prostitute, but is often translated as fornicator.  A female prostitute would be πόρνης which Paul talks about in chapter 6, verse 15.

The context of his use of πόρνος is in a list of vices for which we are to disassociate ourselves from within the church.  Paul writes:  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one (v 11) [2].  This context is interesting because Paul is talking about people within the church—only in the church!  Paul leaves judgment of non-Christians behaving this way to God! (vv 12-13).

Is there any leaven in your life?

 

[1]James Emery White.  2004.  Serious Times:  Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, page 158.

[2]This vice list corresponds with passages in Deuteronomy calling for the death penalty (Richard Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, page 87).

[1]Interestingly, verses 5-8 dealing with leaven are the only verses from chapter 5 found in the common lectionary.  Apparently, sexual immorality is not discussed in the lectionary.

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1 Corinthians 4: Fools for Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Ship of Fools, 1494
Albrecht Dürer, Ship of Fools, 1494

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23 ESV).

Are you a good example?

When I finished my doctorate in 1985, a friend gave me a reprint of a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer called, Ship of Fools (1494), which hangs in my home office. At the time, I worked for the government and the woodcut seemed to be a parody of my office life. Later, in reading a book written on the history of insanity[1], I found reference to my woodcut. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the insane were set adrift on ships—presumably for their own good! Today, we let them wander the streets (and, periodically lock them up for a few days if they misbehave)—presumably to enjoy their legal rights!

The Apostle Paul writes: We are fools for Christ’s sake…To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless … (vv 10-11).  Which of us have been homeless for the Gospel?  Which of us, fools for Christ?

Paul applies different titles to the Christian:  helpers and trustees (v 1); apostles, death-row inmates, and spectacles (in other words, gladiators; v 9); fools, weaklings, fashion-challenged, disreputable, and street people (vv 10-11); blue-collar types, the reviled, the persecuted, the slandered, human garbage, and scum (vv 12-13); and beloved children (v 14).  Do you suppose that Paul was having a bad-hair day?

Paul was making the point that the behavior of the Corinthians was inconsistent with the evangelists, especially Paul, who had brought them to Christ.  He writes, for example: We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute (v 10).  Jesus himself said:  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27 ESV).  Clearly, the Corinthians were out of sync with Gospel teaching.  Are we any different?

One of the hardest admonitions is simply to be a good example.  Without even defining what it means to be good, people run away.  How many athletes and other celebrities haven’t uttered the words:  I am no role model—as if they could wish being a role model away!

What does Jesus say to the disciples?  Follow me! (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:27; John 1:43).  Consequently, when Paul (v 16) writes—imitate me—he is not bragging; he is simply reframing Christ’s own words.

Are you a good example?  Am I?

[1]The premise of the book was that the treatment of the insane is a mirror on society.  Michael Foucault. 1988.  Madness and Civilization:  A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.  New York:  Vintage Books.

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1 Corinthians 3: Infants in Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)
Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3 ESV).

We really want to be in control.  From a very young age, we do not want to depend on other people, to be told what to do, or to answer to anyone.  We take seriously the Declaration of Independence when it reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (July 4, 1776).

Not only do we want the freedom to deny the control of other people and other nations, we want to deny the restrictions placed on us by God himself.  Rather than a sign of maturity, this control fetish is a sign of childishness—children always imitate their parents wanting to do adult things before they are ready.

For the Corinthians, childishness had two prominent features.  They considered themselves to be very spiritual people (v 1) and they divided themselves into political parties (v 4).  The Apostle Paul responded by offering them a lesson in Christian leadership.

Christian leadership, according to Paul, consists in building on the foundation laid by Jesus Christ (v 11), serving God as we are assigned (v 5), and compensated according to quality of the work done (VV 8,13-14). Paul writes:  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (V 6). In this agricultural motif, the farmer does not know how the seeds grow; farming consists only in fostering the growth of healthy seeds. Paul’s point is that God is responsible for growth—follow Jesus, not his servants.

Paul’s lesson clearly applies to us today.

Don’t we consider ourselves spiritual?  Paul talks about the wisdom of this age (v 18).  Hays (49-50) notes that spiritual elitism can take the form of spiritual gifts, scholarly knowledge, doctrinal correctness, moral uprightness, or political correctness[1].  When we do not consider ourselves spiritual elites, we can, of course, simply support our favorite pastor, denomination, or author who expresses our elitist preferences. Is it any wonder that schisms in the church appeal over and over through the ages and frequently find root in a selective reading of scripture itself?

Paul sees this tendency towards spiritual elitism in the Corinthians (vv 18-20) and cites the Prophet Job:

He [God] frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success.  He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end (Job 5:12-13 ESV).

Paul ends this section with another admonishment about boasting saying:  For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (vv 21-23)

As the church, we collectively are God’s temple [2] and under his watchful eye (vv 16-17).

[1]Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

[2]ὁ γὰρ ναὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιός ἐστιν, οἵτινές ἐστε ὑμεῖς (1Corinthians 3:17 BNT).  Translated is:  for God’s temple is holy, and you all are [that temple].

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1 Corinthians 2: Boast in the Lord

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)

We love to show off.  We boast about our strength, our intelligence, our courage, our beauty, our mojo, our spouses, our kids, our cool friends, our cars, our houses, our wealth, our power, our accomplishments—even our ability to speak foreign languages!  Is it any wonder that nations run over their neighbors doing the same thing?

So what does the Apostle Paul do?  Paul says to the Corinthians:  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthian 2:2 ESV).  Who could be weaker than a man publicly stripped, beaten, pierced, and hung out to dry in the hot sun?  In admitting our weaknesses—dealing with our issues—we make room for God and other people in our lives (Isaiah 29:13-14).  Why?  …In admitting our weaknesses, we vanquish pride.

The Prophet Jeremiah writes:  Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24 ESV)

Theologian Richard Hays (36-39) [1] sees 6 implications of Paul’s teaching in our passage:

  1. Focus on the cross;
  2. Confront human boasting;
  3. Wisdom, in Paul’s context, is interpreted via the cross;
  4. Focusing on the cross creates a counter-cultural world;
  5. The social composition of the church should be a sign of God’s election of the foolish, the weak, the low, and the despised; and
  6. This passage directly applies Old Testament teachings (Isaiah 29:13-14, Jeremiah 9:23-24, and 1 Samuel 2:1-10) to the Corinthian (and our) church.

Do we worship with people that look just like us?  Do we focus on the music and pastoral performance?  Do we pat each other on the back constantly?  Do we search for the mysteries of the faith rather than the plain truth of Christ’s example?

Paul makes an interesting comparison (vv 14-15) between the natural person (ψυχικὸς)[2] and the spiritual person (πνευματικῶς). The natural person rejects Christ’s teaching in the cross as foolishness; the spiritual person judges all things (v 15) against this standard.

How?  Because we have the mind of Christ (νοῦν Χριστοῦ; v 16).  Taking up our cross to follow Christ (Matthew 16:24) grants us the ability to remove the speck from our eyes (Matthew 7:1-5) and judge without hypocrisy.

[1]Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] The word in the Greek is psycho!!!

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First Corinthians 1: Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:4 ESV).

Do you give thanks in all circumstances?

In her accounts of imprisonment during World War II, Corrie Ten Boom tells of holding secret prayer meetings in her dormitory using a bible that she had smuggled into the camp.  In prayer, she asked the women with her to pray for all things, even the fleas that made their lives miserable.  Later, she learned that the guards refused to enter her building on account of those very same fleas. In effect, those fleas protected her prayer group from discovery and allowed the group to be an ongoing source of hope in a camp where many perished. Give thanks in all circumstances!

At the time of the Apostle Paul, Corinth was the third largest city in the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria.  The Romans had destroyed Greek Corinth in 146 BC, but it was rebuilt as Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC.  The official language was Latin, but Greek was still employed. Corinth was located strategically on an Isthmus where cargo could easily be transported overland between the Aegean and Ionian seas (Hays 2011, 2-5).

The story of the founding of the church at Corinth is found in Acts 18. The church formed around a group of tent-making friends, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3; Thiselton 2000, 23). The Corinthian church became largely gentile in composition, in part, because of Paul’s frustration in trying to evangelize the Jews (Acts 18:6).  Paul’s frustration must have been substantial because Acts records God offering him comfort:  And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people (Acts 18:9-10).

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth was written about three years later (53-53 AD) from Ephesus (Bloomberg 1994, 21). The letter focuses on two primary issues:  Christian unity and Paul’s response to a number of questions that were posed to him (Hays 2011, 5).  The problem of dissention among the Corinthians stemmed from their “addiction to the power, prestige, and pride represented in the Hellenistic rhetorical tradition” (Hafermann 1993, 165).  If you substituted Washingtonian for Corinthian in Paul’s letter, it might read much the same!

The English Standard Version Bible lays divides chapter 1 of Corinthians into 4 sections:  Greeting (vv 1-3), Thanksgiving (vv 4-9), Divisions in the Church (vv 10-17), and Christ the Wisdom and Power of God (vv 18-31).

Paul’s greeting is unusual is that he refers to the Corinthians (v 2) as “sanctified in Jesus Christ” (ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ) and “called to be saints” (κλητοῖς ἁγίοις).  The root word in the Greek in both expression is ἁγίοις which means:  dedicated to God, holy, sacred, i.e. reserved for God and God’s service (BDAG 61).  This is indeed a strange way to refer to a church racked by division (σχίσματα; v 10)!  Being both sanctified and called to be saints, Paul is pointing to salvation as a reality that has arrived now, but is also not yet complete.  Christians are not saved (past tense) but being saving (σῳζομένοις; v 18; progressive tense).  Our boasting cannot be in our wisdom, power, or noble birth, but in Christ alone (vv 26, 31).  Our salvation is both: now and not yet.

So Paul gives thanks for this unruly congregation.  Babes in Christ; created in the image of God; blessed by their maker; saved by the blood of the Lamb; and entrusted into Paul’s care.

Do you give thanks in all circumstances?

REFERENCES

Bloomberg, Craig L. 1994.  The NIV Application Commentary:  1 Corinthians.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Hafermann, S.J. 1993. “Letters to the Corinthians” pages164-79 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Raph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press.

Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Ten Boom, Corrie, John and Elizabeth Sherrill. 2006. The Hiding Place (Orig pub 1971). Chosen Books.

Thiselton, Anthony C.  2000.  The First Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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