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Archive for the ‘1 Corinthians’ Category

After telling about a tourist who once said about the famed Plymouth Rock “It’s a rock!  Nothing ever happens to it,” Sean McDonough concludes his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 with this:

We tend to look at God the same way- a big, immobile passive boulder who’s just kind of there.  He’s a rock- whatever happens to him?  But the true and living God has shown himself in Christ both in the past- in the wilderness- but also in the present in our life corporately in the church.  He has shown himself to be a God who is near us, a God who walks with us through our troubles, who provides for our needs at every level, a God who responds to us when we call out to him.  Indeed, a rock who let himself be split open so that his life-giving spirit might flow out to quench the deepest thirst of our hearts.

-Sean McDonough, sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, delivered on 6/28/09 at First Congregational Church in Hamilton MA

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The sermon I preached in late June on 1 Cor. 15 is available here.

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1 Corinthians & Acts

As I’m studying the BIble, I find it helpful to tie together different sections of the Bible to show how the writings complement each other. With Paul, it’s good to go back to Acts as you read his letters and see if there may be any helpful information that Acts provides. So, in Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19), you learn that Ephesus has a strong community dedicated to the cult and magic. When you read Ephesians, you notice that Paul, more than any other letter of his, uses language of our victory in Christ in the “heavenlies” and strong language of “spiritual warfare” (Eph 6:12-20). No coincidence. 

I’ve noticed a few parallels between its account of Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18) and Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, some are minor, some helpful.

1. Acts 18:3 says that Paul worked in Corinth as a tentmaker, which fits with his account that he worked rather than have the Corinthians “pay his way” (1 Cor 4:12; 9:6, 18- see also 1 Thess 2:9- this seems to have been Paul’s modus operandi).

2. Acts 18:5-6 notes that Paul’s ministry to the Jews in the synagogues was largely unsuccessful, so much so that he declared “from now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Sure enough, it seems reasonably obvious that Paul’s Corinthian audience is mostly Gentile.

3. Luke tells us that “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized” (18:8). Paul mentions baptizing Crispus in 1 Cor 1:14.

4. While Paul was in Corinth, “the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attach and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). It isn’t a stretch to assume, then, that Paul was afraid. In Paul’s own words, “I came to you in weakness with great and trembling” (1 Cor 2:3).

5. Luke also records the beating of Sosthenes, another synagogue leader, at the hands of an angry mob (18:17). He was, presumably, a believer, and eventual “cowriter” (using that term loosely) of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:1- I wonder if he left Corinth because of the beating?).

6. Finally, after they all leave Corinth, Priscilla and Aquilla, Paul’s coworkers, meet Apollos in Ephesus. Luke tells us “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures…and he spoke with great fervor” (Acts 18:24-25), who was then taught more thoroughly by Priscilla and Aquilla. After this, Apollos ministered in Achaia and Corinth (Achaia is the overall region where Corinth was located) and “vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate” (18:28).

Interestingly, this seems to have caused some unintended problems within the church at Corinth. We learn that some chose to follow Apollos, while some chose to follow others (1 Cor 1:12). It seems that some of the Corinthians had rejected Paul on the basis of his lack of “wisdom” and “eloquence” (1 Cor 1:18-2:16; see also 2 Cor 10:10). Could it be that after experiencing Apollos’ rhetorical abilities and his knowledge that some had placed Apollos higher on the “spiritual” scale than Paul? It would seem that their love for wisdom and persuasive rhetoric would certainly make this possible, if not probable (1 Cor 1:22; 2:1-5). Of course, Paul doesn’t blame Apollos; he was, after all, doing his job of watering the seed that Paul had laid down (3:6). And it’s clear that Apollos was no longer in Corinth when this letter was written (16:12), so the divisions probably happened after his departure.

None of these 6 points, mind you, are necessarily crucial to understanding Paul’s letter. In fact, it seems to me that numbers 3 and 5 are purely incidental, number 1 confirms what we already know in other letters, number 2 gives us a good understanding why Paul’s audience in this letter seems so Gentile (and also confirms what we know from other letters- he was the apostle to the Gentiles, after all), and numbers 4 (on Paul’s fear) and 6 (on Apollos’ abilities) give us some interesting background that proves to be more helpful- especially the last point.

Note: this is a slightly revisted version of an older post.

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Churches that have grown up in the intensely private and individualistic ethos of Western culture find Paul’s call for corporate accountability disturbing.  Our beloved canon within the canon has become Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” which we misinterpret to mean, “I won’t judge you if you won’t judge me.”  … This Matthean text is an important warning against hyopcritical self-righteousness, but it does not in any way preclude the church’s corporate responsiblity, as sketched here in 1 Corinthians 5, for disciplining members who flagrantly violate the will of the God for the community.  The fact that the church so rarely exercises disciplinary function is a sign of its unfaithfulness.  Our failure to do so is often justified in the name of enlightened tolerance of differences, but in fact “tolerance” can become a euphemism for indifference and lack of moral courage.

Richard B Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, p89

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A final word needs to be said about the considerable importance of this letter to today’s church.  The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways- these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today.  Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the ‘weakness’ of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13:1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13; 6:12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40)- these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as to those to whom they were first spoken.

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, pp19-20.

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I can hardly call this post an RoTM, since, as Danny has noted, I have been decidely delinquent in posting lately.  I have several excuses for this, but rather than take ownership and responsibility for the management of my life, I will follow current social trends and blame somebody else, viz., Danny.  It may not appear obvious, but somehow, I know it’s his fault :)

I wanted to tie off a thought of two on the local church:  When is a church properly called “a church?”  Danny and I have admitted up front that “what church is supposed to look like” is a difficult question to answer, because there are no orders of service in Scripture, nor are there detailed descriptions.  Instead, we have to deduce from Scripture how New Testament churches functioned and what types of things they did.

In my encounters with American Christians, most seem to agree with various aspects of what the local church should look like.  Words like “community,” “Bible teaching,” “service,” “prayer,” and “worship,” dot the conversation, as they should.  We’ve heard (ad nauseum, in my opinion) that the church isn’t a building, that the institution isn’t a necessary component to being Christian (side note:  I wonder if that has anything to do with the strong anti-institutional bias in America?).  Yea and amen.  Indeed, a group of believers who come together regularly to study the Word, pray, worship, serve and love each other can be called a local church, irrespective of their registration with the state as such, what day and time they meet, how often, how long, the existence of paid staff, a building, offices, bylaws, polity, or even a proper name.  Or can it?

I feel that the Sacraments are often left out of this discussion, and I number myself among those guilty of neglecting them when describing the fundamentals of what a local church should be.  The Lord’s Supper and baptism are clearly a part of the early church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:14-16; 11:17ff), and their practice today ought to be a part of ours.

The reasons are manifold, but most importantly, if we take the early church as the prototype for all churches to come, and the New Testament as the authority on defining what a church is and does, our participation in these Sacraments shows an explicit attempt to continue in those traditions and practices; affirmation and assent to what Christ founded and the apostles continued.

So then, if a group of believers gathers regularly for worship, prayer, community, and Bible teaching, but neglects any attempt practice the Sacraments (n.b., I make no mention here of what Baptism an the Lord’s Supper mean or look like; these are disputed matters for another post), I do not believe that the New Testament would understand said group as a local church.  Is it good?  Can it be blessed?  Is God pleased with it?  Yes, yes and yes.  Is it a church?  I don’t believe it is.

I am aware that many local gatherings may not have much opportunity for baptism, especially if all members have already been baptized.  However, it should be an available practice, and hopefully the group is seeking to reach unbelievers (another clear mark of a church), and will have the opportunity at some point to baptize.

Is this post a major in the minors?  Am I guilty of sweating some nuance of proper nomenclature?  I do not believe I am.   If we love, serve and pray in our church because the pattern is clear in the New Testament, then we should also practice the Sacraments, since they are equally clear.  Not only so, but they are far from burdensome, but a powerful expression of devotion and love to the God we serve.  I never fail to be blessed when I’ve participated (or witnessed) a Sacrament at my local church.  Let us endeavor to keep them in the ongoing conversation of “what church looks like,” lest we rob the local church of these great traditions.

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Special thanks to Robert of Yale University Press for a review copy of this book.

Joseph Fitzmyer has long been one of the most well known Roman Catholic Bible scholars, writing on subjects ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to a few highly regarded commentaries in the Anchor Series (Luke, Acts, Romans, and Philemon).  Added to these commentaries is his latest work, a commentary on 1 Corinthians.  I’m not sure how long he’s been writing books, but according to his Wikipedia page he was ordained in 1938!

Fitzmyer’s strength is detailed exegesis- lexical analysis, grammatical discussions, historical concerns, etc.  This doesn’t make for the most exciting commentary, but the fact remains that few scholars can write a genuinely engaging commentary.  His attention to detail, especially of the Greek text, gives him some unique insight into some of the rhetorical devices used by Paul.  As far as the content of 1 Corinthians, I’ll give a quick rundown of some of Fitzmyer’s insights:

On the divisions within the Corinthian church mentioned in chapters 1-4 (p52)- “Paul’s initial preaching of that gospel in Roman Corinth resulted in his making a considerable number of converts there.  When other preachers came, such as Apollos and perhaps Cephas, the original Corinthian Christians heard the same gospel preached in other forms, which seems to have distracted them gradually from the nucleus of the gospel message.  So Paul is concerned to recall them to that fundamental message of the cross and of the risen Christ, and of the role of his Spirit in their lives.”

The lawsuits of 6:1-11 are not referring to specific cases Paul has in mind (p248), though Fitzmyer does not really offer another view for why Paul has to write this section.  Paul’s strong words against homosexual activities in 6:10 do not refer simply abuses in homosexual relationships, but any form of same sex relationships (p256-258).  He also includes a short but helpful discussion of slavery and the Christian life in chapter 7, which isn’t surprising given his previous commentary on Philemon (p306).

Chapters 8-10 shows “that Paul seeks to persuade those who possess knowledge to adopt his policy of not using their very ‘right’ to consume such idol meat even in temple banquets” (p332).  Regarding the passage about women covering their heads in chapter 11, Fitzmyer encourages the reader to keep in mind that Paul is only talking about the community gathering in worship, not addressing concerns about “the inferiority of women, women’s ministry, the role of women in the church, or even about the ordination of women” (p405-407).  The head covering is a veil, not a woman’s hair. In his discussion about the Lord’s Supper Fitzmyer may make some Protestants uncomfortable with his use of the term “Real Presence.”  He also includes a helpful discussion of the historical evidence for Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples and how Paul’s discussion in chapter 11 fits with that event (p430).

In chapters 12-14 “Paul is reacting against some Corinthian Christians who are vaunting one gift over another (especially speaking in tongues as the main gift of the Spirit), and in order to counteract that, he is seeking to put all pneumatika, ‘spiritual things,’ especially the endowments of the Spirit, in a proper perspective” (p454).  As for specific questions some might have in these chapters: “‘prophecy’ has to be understood as a Spirit-inspired dynamic and effective preaching of the Scriptures and the gospel” (p467; on 12:10, also noting 14:1, 3-6, 24, 29, 31).  Discerning of spirits (12:10) is not about interpreting prophecy, rather “is a term for evaluation” (p468).  “The perfect” of 13:10 has nothing to do with the completion of the canon, but is eschatological (p498).  Love is more important than the gifts “because it is the mark not only of eternity, but of the present as well” (p503).  Fitzmyer differentiates between the prophet in 14:29 and the one receiving revelation in 14:30 (p526, despite the fact that Paul returns to prophets in vv31-32).  The phrase “as in all the churches of the saints” in 14:33b belongs with what precedes it rather than what follows to avoid the repetition with “in the churches” in v34 (p527).  The verses in 14:34-36 are not a later addition, despite the best attempts at some scholars to argue so.  Rather (surprisingly), vv34-35 are a quotation of the Corinthian church and v36 is Paul’s objection (p530).

In chapter 15, Paul “seeks to demonstrate to them that belief in the resurrection of Christ, which he assumes they still hold, and the conduct of a life lived in Christian faith inevitably imply a belief in the resurrection of the dead” (p558).  Paul is arguing against those who deny the bodily resurrection of believers (with Hays, Fee, and others) as opposed to him arguing against Corinthians who believed the resurrection had already happened (p559-560).  So, “Paul is affirming not only the certainty of Christ’s resurrection, but also Christ’s resurrection as the guarantee of the futurity and certainty of the resurrection of the dead” (p568).  ‘The analogies (of vv36-41) do not prove the resurrection of the dead, but they provide the first step of a plausible mode of understanding it, and they are drawn from ordinary everyday experience” (p586).  The “‘spiritual body’ must mean a human body as transformed by God through Christ for a new mode of existence, under the influence of Pneuma, ‘Holy Spirit'” (p596).

There’s obviously more than could be said of this commentary.  Of interest to probably no one but me, this commentary did not receive the imprimatur of the Catholic church, unlike some of his previous commentaries (including his Romans one, which has been noted to sound more Reformed than Catholic).  Was this because of the change in publisher?  Was there something in this commentary that caused this?  Did he not seek this?

Often times the flow of the Anchor commentaries is tough to follow, coming across as a bunch of disjointed notes on the text.  Fitzmyer is better than some others I’ve read because he takes full advantage of the “comments” section before his notes to summarize the passage.  In these sections, he is able to achieve a good balance in interacting with other scholars and giving his own outlook.

For those who are doing detailed work in 1 Corinthians, Fitzmyer will prove to be a strong resource to consult.  For the pastor, he may not be as much help as other commentaries, notably Fee, Garland and Hays.  The problem is this: there are so many excellent commentaries on 1 Corinthians already.  I count Fee, Thiselton and Hays as the best, and Garland is as highly regarded as these by many I trust (but I haven’t used it much).  And I haven’t even mentioned Barrett, Witherington, Blomberg, Collins, Keener, Thiselton’s shorter commentary and so on.  Oh, and let’s not forget the forthcoming commentaries by Rosner/Ciampa, Ellis, Winter… you get the idea.  I guess my point is that we don’t need more commentaries on 1 Corinthians.

So where does Fitzmyer fit among the fray?  This commentary is in the top half of the ones I mentioned.  He’s different enough from the evangelical offerings to give a different viewpoint, but isn’t so different that an evangelical wouldn’t benefit from him.  As far as comparing this to his other commentaries, I still think his Luke and Philemon commentaries make a stronger contribution to those respective books.  Again, you can’t really fault Fitzmyer for this, since 1 Corinthians has been one of the most examined letters in the Bible (or probably in the ancient world).  Thus, there is little new, but much good in Fitzmyer’s commentary on 1 Corinthians and he ought to be commended for another fine work.

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