In my left hand is a Lego spaceship which I purchased disguised as a shopping dad, but which I actually purchased for my own therapeutic enjoyment… Oh and in my right hand is a bible, and that’s what we’re gonna do a show about, because it’s a book…
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, I am Josh Way. This is the podcast that explores the content of the Jewish and Christian bibles through the lenses of history and literature – who wrote these texts, and why and how did they do it? And, my friends, believe it or not, we are entering into the home stretch. In fact, it is possible that we might count the number of remaining podcasts on a single stubby human hand. That is both exciting and sad…
Today we continue our look at the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul, written to various churches with various problems. Last time we read Romans, and I’m going to assume you’ve read or listened to that one as we press onward. Two things to keep in mind as we continue: 1) when Paul talks about “the gospel” he’s referring to the apostolic declaration that the crucified and resurrected prophet Jesus is Messiah and Lord, and 2) he’s addressing both Jewish Messiah followers and converted Greek pagans. Everything we observed about the context and vocabulary of Romans applies here, even as we move into some uncharted territory.
On the docket today are a pair of letters to the church in Corinth, which Paul himself helped to found on a missionary voyage narrated in Acts Chapter 18. In Romans, Paul addressed a broad crisis affecting all First Century Christians, namely the challenge of Jewish and pagan relations in the new church family. In 1 Corinthians the crisis is much more specific and… well, colorful. This church has a lot of problems. Paul is going to have some harsh words for this group, but he opens his letter much like he did Romans, with a brief articulation of the gospel and his standard greeting, “Grace and peace to you from God our father and King Jesus the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:3)
In the body of the letter, Paul identifies and addresses at least seven specific problems faced by the Corinthian church. In each case, he admonishes them (much as he did the Romans) to pursue love and unity, but this letter is also uniquely concerned with eschatology, and all of Paul’s responses have something to do with the “last things,” or “the new age.” We’ll discover as we read on that Paul’s view of the “end times” (or perhaps they should be called the “beginning times”) looks very different from what many modern day Christians expect. For Paul, it’s not about the “end of the world” and “going to heaven,” it’s all about the world and its residents being reborn in splendor. You’ll see what I mean.
The first problem addressed by Paul is division among the Corinthian Christians. Some are boasting that they are students of Paul, some of Apollos, others are disciples of Peter, and some claim the Messiah Jesus as their guru. Paul scolds them all for being proud and foolish, joining fan clubs based on a cult of personality. We should all be united in Messiah, he says, not forming new tribes (also known as “denominations”). He uses an eschatological parable to put it in perspective: On “that day,” what we might call “Judgment Day,” the whole world – including us and our accomplishments – will be forged with a refining fire. Those things that were made of wood and straw will be burned away, and only truly valuable things – gold and jewels – will remain. We will all come through this fire, says Paul, and thus will be purified and “saved.” The point of the metaphor is clear: we ought to get busy now with things that will last. For Paul this means celebrating Messiah in love and brotherhood instead of bragging about which team you belong to.
Problem number two is a full-blown sex scandal. In Chapter 5 Paul is horrified to learn that a man in the Corinthian church is sleeping with his own stepmother, and the congregation seems just fine with the idea. Paul’s response is, kick the guy out. Once again he puts it in terms of eschatology: “Hand over such a person to the accuser (the satan) for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus.” The apostle goes on a fascinating rant in which he tells the church to stop worrying about all the sinners outside their walls, and to clean up their own household. Stop judging people who don’t even believe the same things as you, and stop giving your own family a pass. Interesting stuff!
Corinthian crisis numero tres in Chapter 6 finds Christians suing other Christians in court. Paul’s initial response reveals yet another fascinating aspect of his eschatology. He says, “Don’t you know that God’s people are going to judge the world?” The apostle, who frequently implores his churches not to judge one another, actually believes that these same people will one day be “judges” by Messiah’s side over the whole earth. And yet, they can’t even settle small disputes among themselves. Sheesh. Paul concludes this section with a more down-to-earth point by asking what Christians are doing in court in the first place? Only the proud and the powerful go to court, and Christians ought to take the loss. Isn’t that the way of Jesus?
In Chapter 7 Paul addresses a fourth problem. Not an incident or a scandal, but a pressing question about Christians, sex, and marriage. We might assume that we know what the bible has to say about sex and “family values,” but what Paul says here is completely surprising. And, it turns out, it’s all because of his eschatology. Paul expects Jesus to return at any moment to rescue creation, and so he actually advises his congregations not to bother getting married. He concedes that those who are already married should remain married, and advises those with sex on the brain to get married if they absolutely must, but he recommends celibacy to everyone as an ideal. This is one of the surprises of the early church. In the First Century, it was the Roman Empire that stood for “family values,” seeking to fill the world with as many Roman citizens as possible, while the Christians were the ones who considered family a distraction. Keep that in mind the next time you crack the bible open for some advice on courtship or parenting.
Problemo cinco, in Chapter Ocho, pertains to the collision of religion and commerce. Long story short, pagan butchers were also priests, since they oversaw the slaying of animals, and all animals were killed as sacrifices to the gods. Thus, all the meat in the market was sacrificial leftovers. The Corinthian Christians ask Paul, is it OK for us to buy and eat this stuff? Paul spells it out: On the one hand, the Christians don’t even believe these Roman gods exist, so what’s the big deal? But on the other hand, buying the meat might be perceived as an endorsement of pagan religion. For the sake of those with a “weak conscience,” Paul advises the Corinthians not to eat the meat. This leads to a rant in chapter 9 about all of the “rights” that Paul has forsaken in his life as an apostle: the right to eat or drink whatever he’d like, the right to get married, the right to earn money – he’s given them all up so that he will be above reproach with everyone he meets.
In Chapter 11 Paul addresses problem #6, pertaining to gender roles within the church. Paul believes that there is a hierarchy built into the fabric of the universe (and thus the church): God is the head of Jesus, Jesus is the head of every man, and every husband is the head of his wife. And so, everyone should know their place within the system. Christians today, generally speaking, come down on two sides of this issue: some suggesting that Paul’s view is a product of the patriarchal time and culture in which he lived, and others insisting that it represents a God-given natural law, that the gender hierarchy is a cold, hard fact of nature. For my part as a history and literature guy, I make two observations: 1) No one, not even the most conservative traditionalist, follows Paul all the way on gender issues. Right here in 1 Corinthians, Paul insists – appealing to nature itself – that women must cover their heads when in worship and remain silent in church. And (this part rarely gets mentioned) he elsewhere instructs men to raise their hands in worship and greet one another with a holy kiss. No church enforces all (or even most) of these rules. And 2), as we’re discovering in this letter, most modern American Christians disagree with Paul on a lot of very important topics, such as marriage and celibacy and even eschatology, which one would think is even more important to the life and belief of the church.
Let’s leave that minefield behind us and look at the weird and wild seventh (and final) problem of the letter. If you’ve ever taken the Lord’s Table or Holy Communion in a church, you might be surprised to learn that the ancient practice of eucharist actually consisted of a celebratory meal, a sort of party. To Paul’s chagrin, however, the party in Corinth has been getting out of control. In addition to general disorder and chaos, the wealthy Christians are showing up early, eating everything and getting drunk, leaving nothing for the poorer members who can’t get there until after work. Paul reminds the Corinthians that when they celebrate the table they are joining themselves symbolically with Messiah, and that they ought to act worthy of such an occasion. He goes so far as to suggest that their bad behavior at communion might bring curses and sickness upon them. Protestant churches today often appeal to Paul’s words as a warning to their congregations not to take the elements without first confessing their sins, but I think that really oversteps the context and message of the passage which is aimed specifically at the unruly conduct of the wealthy Corinthians. In fact, while Paul doesn’t say anything about confessing sins, he does say, “have something to eat at home before you come to church!” (1 Cor 11:34)
In Chapter 12 Paul talks about the holy spirit and expands on an idea we glimpsed in the letter to the Romans. He explains that every member of the church – in this case the Corinthian church – has certain gifts bestowed on them by God through “the spirit.” For the letter’s recipients, this is a word of encouragement, but for us it provides a fascinating glimpse into the way these earliest churches were organized and structured – or rather, not so structured. This is an important observation: Note that in these letters, Paul is not writing to “pastors” or “elders” or “bishops,” he writes to a community. He doesn’t mention “pastors” and “elders” because, as far as we can tell, these positions didn’t exist. Paul’s churches are “charismatic communities,” from the Greek charisma or “gift.” They are founded by apostles and operated by male and female deacons, but are otherwise run by the holy spirit working through the diverse and talented membership. Of course, this won’t be the case later in the church, but this is how it was at the beginning, and this is the context for Paul’s message as he tells them to start acting like a unified community instead of a chaotic group of self-interested individuals. Side Note: This business of charismatic versus structured churches will have big ramifications when we look at some of the other letters attributed to Paul next time.
Paul starts to wrap things up, and he’ll close the letter out by readdressing its two major themes: love and eschatology. His plea to the church at Corinth has been twofold: 1) you don’t have enough love for one another, and 2) you don’t properly understand the future. In Chapter 13 he writes (or perhaps quotes) a beautiful poem about the centrality of love in the Christian experience. This really is an amazing work of art, with some very well-known lines:
13:1 If I speak in human languages
Or even those of angels,
But do not have love,
Then I’ve become a clanging gong or
A clashing cymbal…
4 Love is big hearted, love is kind,
It knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
Is not puffed up, 5 has no shameless ways,
Doesn’t force its rightful claim,
Doesn’t rage or bear a grudge,
6 Doesn’t celebrate another’s harm,
Rejoicing rather in the truth…
13 So now faith, hope and love remain, these three, and of them,
Love is the greatest.
Paul tells Corinth: all the religion in the world is meaningless without love. And while this might feel like a good place to leave things, Paul’s not quite finished. After some practical instructions in Chapter 14 about orderly worship, Paul comes to the climax of the letter in Chapter 15 with one last lengthy discussion of eschatology. This is a hugely important passage for our understanding of Paul and his message, and I’m sorry to say that this is yet another one that has been notoriously misunderstood. In my own upbringing, for example, this chapter was frequently read as a description of what our bodies and our experiences would be like “when we get to heaven,” with endless conjecture about seeing dead relatives and floating around and playing harps and being indestructible, and whatever else. But here’s the thing: this chapter isn’t about going to heaven, it’s about resurrection.
Most people, Christians included, think that resurrection is about what happened once to Jesus, but for Paul, it’s much bigger than that. We glimpsed the Jewish notion of resurrection around the time of the exile, in Hebrew Bible passages like Daniel 12, which imagined a post-mortem vindication for the murdered Jews, and a “judgment day” for their persecutors. Not all streams of Judaism embraced this idea of resurrection, but many did – including the Pharisees of which Paul claims to have been a member. When Paul becomes a follower of Jesus, he doesn’t stop being a Jew or believing the things he believed before, but he reconfigures them around the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, in 1 Corinthians 15, he explains why he considers this the single most important aspect of the Christian hope, and the answer to all of the Corinthians’ problems. Here’s a summary of Chapter 15:
Paul starts with a more detailed narration of his gospel message, that Jesus the Messiah “died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” This first section, verses 3 through 8, appears to be some kind of early creed that Paul is reciting, making it one of the earliest extant Christian liturgies. Jesus died and was raised, and was then seen by many witnesses, a group in which Paul includes himself, referring to his vision described in Acts. Paul’s first point is that the resurrection was real, which leads to his second point, that this is a proof and vindication of the old Jewish expectation of resurrection. This is the aspect of Paul’s eschatology that we often miss. Jesus doesn’t introduce a new, Christian eschatology which is all about going to heaven when you die, he fulfills and inaugurates the old expectation, which turns out to be true. Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, meaning that he is only the first of many. And, for the apostle, this resurrection isn’t some spiritual metaphor or afterlife escape, it’s something that will happen here on earth. Recall from Romans that Paul expects the world itself to be remade and reborn, not destroyed, and resurrection is the other side of that coin. New creation, new people, new bodies, new world. And Paul sums it up for the Corinthians like this at the end of the chapter:
56 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be in vain.
The big point for Paul is that the Messiah’s family is not called to escape a doomed world for another dimension, but that they are the firstfruits and ambassadors of a new world, and this should change the way they live and relate to one another and to creation itself. Fascinating that most Christians throughout history have not followed Paul on this road, either because they don’t really believe in resurrection, or because they have embraced some other eschatology (that they probably assume is Pauline). Much like the whole letter of Romans, 1 Corinthians 15 is a passage that is just begging to be read in entirety and context.
Paul wraps up the letter by taking care of some business concerning charitable donations and shout-outs to colleagues like Timothy and Apollos, and other friends like Stephanas. He then closes the letter with some rather colorful words:
16:22 If anyone doesn’t love the Lord, let them be accursed! Come, Lord, come!
OK, Paul, tell us what you really think. And that’s the first letter to the Corinthians. We’ll take a very brief look at the second letter to this same church before we call it a day.
While 1 Corinthians was characterized by finger wagging and scolding, the sequel letter is all about comfort and encouragement, with some passive aggression and a few guilt trips tossed in for good measure. Of course, there may have been any number of letters between Paul and this church, there’s no reason to think these are the only two. In fact, there is a 3 Corinthians, widely believed to be a forgery, that didn’t make it into the New Testament library. 2 Corinthians does make reference to a “first letter,” and makes some possible references to issues from our 1 Corinthians.
Paul’s tone in 2 Corinthians is very different from the start. Though specific details are lacking, it appears that both the Corinthians and Paul’s band of apostles have been through some traumatic experiences. The church has been through some kind of ordeal since Paul’s last letter, and the apostles faced some form of “suffering” in Asia, possibly persecution such as was narrated in Acts. Through tears, it seems, Paul alternates between reassuring and praising the Corinthians for their faith and progress, and defending the reputations of the apostles. Through it all, as usual, he urges unity and hope in Messiah.
After acknowledging everyone’s pain in Chapter 1 and lamenting that he hasn’t been able to visit the church, Paul goes on in Chapter 2 to address a matter of discipline in the church. Someone was severely punished on Paul’s last visit, and he urges them now to forgive and reconcile with the man in question. We might speculate that this was the man sleeping with his stepmother from 1 Corinthians, but it would be pure speculation. This is where Paul does make reference to that first letter, in which he urged unity in condemning wrongdoers in the congregation, and now, in the midst of great suffering, he commends leniency and forgiveness.
In Chapter 3 Paul pays the Corinthians a compliment, telling them that they constitute a sort of “letter of recommendation” for the apostles – a source of pride and validation for those announcing the gospel. This compliment also functions as a defense of the apostles, and we get the sense that Paul is responding to some kind of criticism, either from within the church or without. The apostolic missionaries may be slandered, but Paul says their work among the churches speaks for itself. He continues into Chapter 4, saying that those who don’t embrace the gospel are like the ancient Israelites who made Moses veil his face after coming down from Mount Sinai so they couldn’t see the radiant glory of YHWH. If people don’t see the glory of Jesus, says Paul, the accuser has blinded them. But those who are in the Messiah have their eyes open. This prompts a Chapter 5 review his eschatological teaching: Messiah’s people are a participants in and ambassadors for the new creation, anticipating resurrection and announcing reconciliation with God through Jesus (5:19-21). Again we note how far this is from the doomsday, “repent or burn” message of so many Christian groups throughout history. Paul’s gospel is truly “good news” by comparison.
In Chapter 6 Paul describes what God’s servants the Christians should look like from the outside: patient, longsuffering, honest, kind, and genuine in love. He then urges the Corinthian church to fear the Lord and not to partner with unbelievers. In Chapter 7 he rambles on a bit, apologizing for the harshness of his previous letter, but then being glad that he sent it for it led to their repentance. He boasts again and again about their progress and his pride. This high praise comes, perhaps by design, before an appeal for financial assistance. Paul goes on and on about how generous the church in Macedonia has been, despite its own crises, and suggests that maybe Corinth should consider being generous too? Then he lays it on a little thick: I’m not ordering you to give us money, I’m just saying that Jesus forfeited everything and died for your sins. But no pressure.
In Chapter 10 Paul defends himself and the apostles once more, explaining that – like Messiah himself – they are meek and mild, and yet bold in telling the truth. They don’t argue and fight for power in the typical human way, says Paul, they fight a spiritual battle. While others boast in their accomplishments or their own wisdom, the apostles boast only in God’s power revealed in the story of Messiah. In Chapter 11 this segues into a warning about false apostles, who might come to Corinth announcing some “different Jesus.” And it’s very clear from Paul’s words here that he has some specific false apostles in mind. We recall from Acts that itinerate apostles were everywhere, and not all of them had the same set of cookie-cutter beliefs. Paul pleads with the Corinthians to remain faithful to him, and in Chapter 12 he caps it all off with a vague, third-person retelling of his own conversion experience, which seems to be intended as a final defense: God revealed himself to me in a vision!, says Paul, and this is why you should trust me! After announcing his plans to return to Corinth and a final admonition to “keep in the faith,” Paul closes the letter with these words:
13:11 … Celebrate, put everything in order, strengthen one another, think in the same way, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Because of Paul’s harried and desperate state of mind, 2 Corinthians appears to be perhaps even less structured than the other letters we’ve examined. There’s never any doubt reading Paul that you’re reading the words of an opinionated and emotional human being. In this letter, he seems defensive and hurt to an almost pathetic degree. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we made a point of how creative and human the voices of the prophets and poets were, and the same is absolutely true in the New Testament. But for so many in the modern church, Paul is a venerated teacher and master, but almost never a fallible human being. The result is severe cognitive dissonance when we try to read his letters, ignoring his ranting and raving and pretending this is a textbook.
When reading any bible text, regardless of our “view of scripture,” the first step has to be an authentic encounter with the thoughts and feelings of a human author. In 1 Corinthians we meet an excitable and determined apostle offering eschatological hope to a church in crisis, and in 2 Corinthians we meet a broken and persecuted evangelist, begging his friends not to abandon him. It’s part of the magic and value of these texts that we can enter into Paul’s reality from across such a great distance of time and culture. For those today who claim membership in the same Messianic family, there are many treasures waiting to be discovered, if we have ears to hear. Next time, we’ll look at some of Paul’s shorter letters, and then we’ll have a tough talk about the disputed “pastoral epistles.”
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.