In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
I'm studying 1 and 2 Corinthians. I’ve sometimes wondered what Christianity would be like if Paul had been more like a serene, Buddhist teacher, calm in his approach. He is quite emotional in some of his letters, 2 Corinthians and Galatians being two examples. Like Paul, I wear my heart on my sleeve sometimes, so I can't criticize him for that---plus, he didn't know he was writing letters that would become sacred scripture!
But the God of the Old Testament is no aloof deity or spiritual principle; God is deeply involved with his people and with the well-being of creation.
Corinth was a metropolitan center, and the Corinthian church had a tendency to factionalism. They were impressed with people of importance and with “showy” displays of faith. Now THERE are two qualities that we still find in many congregations! Paul has to deal with them through visits, reports, and his letters.
In 1 Corinthians Paul exhorts them to be unified not divided: all Christian workers have an important function in the church, and Christian wisdom is a gift from God rather than a human quality for which people may boast. (“Boasting” is a theme in these letters.) He tries to teach them that the apostles strive to be humble coworkers, whose ministry is judged by God alone. Being taught or baptized by any particular minister makes no special difference.
Paul scolds them for tolerating incest in the congregation (there was a man who was sleeping with his stepmother); for going to court instead of settling grievances as a congregation; for using their Christian freedom as an opening to visit prostitutes (5-6).
His teaching about marriage is famously unenthusiastic about the institution: he'd just as soon everyone stay single as he is, but "it is better to be married than to be aflame with passion." His advice on marriage and celibacy is based on his conviction that the times are short and Christ will soon return, so being focused on Christ is better for those times (chap. 7).
Continuing his teaching about Christian freedom, he cautions them about eating food that had been offered to idols—-a common practice in Greece of the time the availability of meat in the markets that had been butchered at the temples. He argues that, since the idols are nothing and so the meat is alright to eat, but church folk should be careful; no one should become a “stumbling block” to a person whose (immature) faith is upset by such things (8-10). Similarly, the veiling of women in church.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 deals with the Lord’s Supper. Some of the church had been crowding out the poor people and making the ceremony into a kind of party. I wish Paul had expressed himself a little differently when he writes “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself”—-I’ve known a few people who were thereby afraid to take communion because they felt unworthy!
1 Corinthians 12 famously concerns the use of spiritual gifts and the importance of unity in diversity. Even more famously, 1 Corinthians teaches that love is more important than anything else: if you’re good at doctrine, using spiritual gifts, and understanding, it’s all noise and emptiness if you don’t love. Chapter 14 deals specifically with the gift of glossalalia—certainly a gift that still divides congregations.
Chapter 15 are lovely thoughts about the Resurrection: its necessity, its mysterious logic, its assurance, and its bodily rather than disembodied quality. A song in Handel’s “Messiah” always comes to mind when I read this passage.
Chapter 16 concludes with a reminder about Paul’s itinerary and his project of collecting money to support the church in Jerusalem.
Some favorite passages that I've long had highlighted in my old Bible:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1:18-25)
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord' (1:18-31)
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building (3:6-9)
So let no one boast about human leaders. 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 belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (3:21-23). Paul Tillich preached a wonderful sermon, "All is Yours!" found in one of his sermon collections (I forget which one.)
Chapters 12 and 13 and 15 are filled with wonderful words, as well, but I shouldn't quote whole or nearly whole chapters. :-)
Paul's Corinthian correspondence invites textual questions. He refers to an early letter (see 1 Cor. 5:9) but this has not survived, though my old Harper Study Bible intro indicates that 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 may be a portion of that letter. Because of the change in tone between 2 Cor. 1-9 and 10-13, scholars have also speculated that 10-13 is all or part of the “stern letter” that Paul refers to in 2 Cor. 2:3, 7:8, et al.
My Harper Bible Commentary (pp. 1191-1192) takes this view about the Corinthian correspondence: The letter referred to in 1 Cor. 5:9-11, in which Paul counsels them about immorality, is a lost "Letter A," written about 51 or 52. Then as Paul sent Timothy to them to help them, he also sent "Letter B", which is 1 Corinthians. Paul also sent a "tearful letter," which he refers to in 2 Cor. 2:4, after Paul had visited the church and it was not a good experience. This is a "Letter C," the "tearful letter." Some commentators (according to that same source, p. 1191) identify 2 Cor. 10-13 as the "tearful letter," and 2 Cor. 1-9 was written as a reconciliation. Others (including the HBC author), believe that 2 Cor. 1-9 is "Letter D" that followed the "tearful letter", and then 2 Cor. 10-13 is "Letter E" that responded to Titus' report of persons in the Corinthian church that undermined Paul's authority.
2 Corinthians is a long defense of Paul's ministry, too. He explains the circumstances for Paul’s change of itinerary and discussing the several aspects of his ministry (chapters 1-7). He returns to the subject of the Jerusalem church, urging them to contribute out of love rather than shame.
Paul’s tone grows more sharp in 10-13 when he turns to the subject of teachers who had been swaying the Corinthians and turning them against Paul. He gets really upset as he talks about all the ways he has sought to be faithful—-including his struggles with the unnamed “thrown in the flesh” (an illness, or something else that caused him pain) through which God has worked.
At the end of the letter, he repeats to them all the blessings of God to him and to them and urges them to support him and one another.
2 Corinthians may be easy to summarize as it is focused on Paul's self-defense in the face of criticism and opposition, there are some wonderful passages that are old favorites:
Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (3:5-6)
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day (4:16)
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (5:16-21)
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death (7:10)
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (9:6-7)
On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (12:5-10)