Paul turns to church growth, warning that believers’ hearts may be largely recaptured by the flesh. Soulwinning is God’s work and we must take care how we build. Here are applications; with the case of those who will lose a reward, yet be saved ‘as by fire’.
You can look at the different epistles in the New Testament and identify a particular doctrine, warning, correction, or encouragement for which each one is notable. But 1 Corinthians stands out for its sheer scope. There are probably more issues dealt with in it than in any other epistle – church discipline, stewardship, love, sanctification, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, how to interpret the Bible, and many others besides.
This letter is a testimony to the astounding power of God because of the Corinthians themselves. Corinth was 45 miles west of Athens, the capital and the administrative centre of the Roman province of Achaia (which was most of Greece); Greeks, Romans and Jews all lived in Corinth, with a population of around 90,000. But Corinth was an evil city, and its immoral and permissive ways were infamous; it was known in the ancient world as ‘carnal Corinth’. It was also a very proud city – proud of its philosophical learning, status, wealth and athletic games, rivalling the Olympics. Such a place would naturally be thought hardened and hostile to the gospel.
But into Corinth came Paul, initially alone, in 49AD on his second missionary journey when he preached on a very rocky hill to great crowds of people. There, by the power of God, hearts were moved by the preaching. Hundreds, we believe, possibly even thousands, were truly converted and a great church was quickly established. Despite much opposition, Paul was instructed by God through a vision to remain in Corinth (‘Be not afraid … for I have much people in this city’) and so he continued to preach there for a year and a half.
By the time of this epistle five or six years had passed. There were now problems in the church of Corinth which are addressed in this first epistle. But the problems in the church of Corinth should not be exaggerated. It was a wonderful church, highly commended by the apostle. We see this in the opening verses. So we should not assume that the faults Paul addresses were characteristic of the whole church. The people were very earnest, very devout, and very concerned for the truth.
What were these problems? There was immorality in the church, and it had not been disciplined. A party spirit had also developed among some people, who said, ‘We follow this preacher’, and others, ‘We follow that preacher’. A few advocated mixing pagan temple feasts with the Lord’s Supper and had to be reproved.
So Corinth represents a good church which nevertheless had to be corrected on certain things. And that is true of every church. We all need the constant correction and instruction of the Scripture.