Date: 08 Jan 2017
Text: Acts 18:1-17
I want this morning to begin a series of sermons looking at what we know as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. I’ve really got no idea at the moment just how many sermons there will be; it truly is a case of “as the Spirit leads”!
However, before we actually look at 2 Corinthians to try and understand what Paul is talking about in this letter, I want to try and give an overview of Paul in Corinth and his relationship with the Corinthians.
We can read some of how this all came about in Acts 18 which is the longest passage in Acts dealing with the Corinthian leg of Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul & Corinth
During his various missionary journeys Paul founded a number of churches. Having done that he either stayed with them for a short while, or left one of his team in charge to care for the new Christians, help with regular ministry and lead the church to grow. Paul also wrote to these churches whenever he had the opportunity and it is many of those letters that we have in the New Testament. Whilst some of the letters were written specifically to the recipient church to help with problems that may have arisen, others were of a more circular nature so that they could be read in a number of churches. As an example of the latter we can read in Colossians 4:16, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”
As we know Paul made three missionary journeys to various parts of Asia and Greece. The second of these was quite lengthy and involved him founding churches in Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica amongst other places. Towards the end of this journey Paul arrived in Corinth in Greece. I know that I’ve mentioned a few facts about Corinth in previous sermons but it is always good to refresh our memories of the city and church that are the subjects of 2 Corinthians. Corinth was a sizeable city that was some distance to the west of Athens. In many ways it had usurped Athens as a political and economic centre, something that may have been as a result of the city being close to two harbours meaning that a lot of trade, and therefore a lot of people, passed through the city. There was a harbour 2½ kilometres to the west and another 14 kilometres to the east, and the city stood at the foot of a mountain that was approximately 566 metres high and which dominated the skyline. At the time of Paul’s arrival Corinth was a very pagan city worshipping any number of unknown gods and many of the religious rituals involved sexual acts being performed on the ‘altar’ in the cult’s temple. As a result of these activities Corinth was very well known throughout the region for its immorality. On the plus side and to partially counter this there was also a sizeable Jewish presence with an active synagogue.
Perhaps unusually it seems possible that Paul went alone to Corinth. Shortly after his arrival however, he met a Christian couple by the name of Aquila and Priscilla who had arrived in Corinth after being expelled from Rome for being Christians. God as ever was in control since not only were they believers but they shared Paul’s trade of tent making. As a result they were able to team up and work together and I suspect that Paul appreciated their friendship and support. Paul worked with his new friends during the week and then, as was his habit, preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath. After a short while his co-workers Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, probably with a financial gift which allowed Paul to devote all his time to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. He spent quite some time trying to convince the Jews and the Greeks, or Gentiles, who attended the synagogue, that Jesus was the Messiah. All he got in return was abuse and ridicule. Preaching the gospel is a wonderful experience although there are times when a preacher can feel discouraged and downhearted by the negative response of his hearers. Despite Paul being such a great worker for Christ, he was no different and he eventually gave up this particular struggle. I love The Message translation of Acts 18:6 which says, “All they did [that is the Jews] was argue contentiously and contradict him at every turn. Totally exasperated, Paul had finally had it with them and gave it up as a bad job”. He went on to add, “Have your own way then. You’ve made your bed; now lie in it. From now on I’m spending my time with the other nations.” They had heard and rejected the gospel and they would eventually have to face up to the consequences of that decision. Paul wasn’t giving up altogether; he simply decided to put his energies to better use elsewhere. God made sure that that would be the case since the Apostle needed only to move to the house next door to the synagogue in order to continue his work of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. As it happens it seems that the person living next door to the synagogue was a believer in Christ by the name of Titius Justus. Where an obstacle arises God will always provide a solution just as He did on this occasion. I think that old saying applies here; when one door closes another one opens, especially when God is involved.
Following this development Paul must have felt that his mission was now taking hold which meant that he decided to stay in Corinth for 18 months, longer than at most other cities or churches. He obviously felt an affinity with and a love for the people despite the problems he encountered; hence the length of his stay and, much later, the number of letters that he exchanged with them.
Even though Paul left the synagogue and moved to the home of Titius Justus, Corinth still wasn’t an easy place in which to try and spread the gospel given the opposition from the pagans, the Jews and numerous false teachers at work in the city. Paul also faced constant criticism which he not only had to face up to but answer, and it seems that no sooner had he dealt with one problem than another one came up. These problems grew to such an extent that members of the synagogue tried to take Paul to Court for the proconsul Gallio to pass judgement on him. However, Gallio wasn’t interested feeling that it was an internal Jewish matter and nothing to do with him. Having lost that battle the dissident Jews decided to turn on the leader of the synagogue Sosthenes and so beat him up in full view of Gallio, and as Luke writes in Acts 18:17b, “Gallio showed no concern whatever”. Undeterred by all this, Paul continued his stay for quite a while longer before leaving for Ephesus accompanied by his friends Priscilla and Aquila. The work of spreading the gospel didn’t cease with Paul’s departure since he left Silas and Timothy to carry on that vital work.
This second missionary journey that Paul made lasted 3 years including the time that he stayed in Corinth itself and the whole trip probably took place between 50 and 52 AD. However it wasn’t until 55 AD that Paul wrote what we know as 1 Corinthians from his temporary base in Ephesus.
Over the last 50 years or so, there have been many lifestyle changes brought about by the increase in technology, the change in the demographics around the country and a general change in people’s habits. One habit to have all but disappeared is that of letter writing. With the advent of so-called social networks people now communicate in different ways. Whereas people used to write letters to their friends and relatives now they use e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and the various other tools that are available on smart phones, tablets and the like. I read recently that when he was Prime Minister, the late Harold MacMillan would regularly write long letters to HM Queen, this despite seeing her on an almost weekly basis. These letters contained both detailed state and diplomatic information as well as humorous anecdotes and they were greatly enjoyed by Her Majesty. I somehow doubt that the current Prime Minister does the same!
Letter writing may have almost disappeared in the modern age but the Apostle Paul was a great letter writer; let’s face it unless he visited people there was no other way to communicate with them. In the New Testament we have 13 of these letters and we know from reading some of them that there were others that aren’t in the Bible. In many ways it is the “‘missing” letters that are the most interesting. Why do I say that? Why would they be of interest? Well, the answer is simple when you think about it; we have no idea what Paul said in those letters! Were these letters simply left out of the Bible or were they lost altogether? It would be nice to know and I hope that we can learn more as we look at 2 Corinthians.
Having left Corinth for Ephesus, Paul continued his work there. At some stage he must have received a letter from Corinth as he wrote his first letter to them in response to what may have been a list of questions and problems for him to deal with. This letter has long since been lost and so we can only speculate at its contents and the true reasons for it being written. We can however deduce from 1 Corinthians 5:9 that amongst other things, Paul had advised them to avoid mixing with those who were guilty of sexual immorality. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:9, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people...” The Corinthians unfortunately misinterpreted that comment and decided that it meant that they should cut themselves off from society as a whole, something which was a long way from what Paul intended.
We know from 1 Corinthians 16:17 that whilst in Ephesus Paul received a visit from Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus who either delivered a letter from the church or were able to update him verbally on all the news from Corinth. No doubt it was that and the problems that they identified and the questions they asked that prompted Paul to write his second letter to them; that being what we know as 1 Corinthians. This wide ranging letter covered a lot of topics and was intended to help them grow in their faith and to correct any errors that may have crept into their spiritual lives. In this letter Paul covered topics such as Christian marriage, food sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts and the collection to help the Christians in Jerusalem. He also offered moral guidance with respect to reports of incest, lawsuits between Church members and drunkenness, gluttony and arguments at the Lord’s Supper. All that Paul had to say was aimed at being very practical and was designed to help the fledgling church. When you analyse it carefully, you may agree that much of what Paul had to say may well be applicable to today’s church. What Paul had to say in 55 AD or thereabouts is as relevant now as it was then.
After a period of time there must have been some response to this second letter as Paul wrote again in a third letter; that is the one that Paul wrote out of “great distress and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:4). This third letter went down like a lead balloon and caused yet more dissension and anger prompting Paul to write a fourth letter, the one that we know as 2 Corinthians and which is the subject of this series.
The Corinthian Church
Whilst I’m sure that Paul felt a great deal of affection for the believers in Corinth, they certainly seem to have caused him more problems than any other church that he founded. During his 18 month stay in the city he would have preached the good news of Jesus Christ, founded or co-founded a new church in the home of Titius Justus, and taught the new believers as much as he possibly could about Jesus and all that He meant. However, over a period of time and some time after Paul’s departure, they appear to have become a divided church and a divided church can never properly represent the Lord Jesus Christ. They seem to have constantly argued about a number of issues and may well have been infiltrated by any number of false teachers.
We come across false teachers in a number of places throughout the New Testament, and those who attended the Bible Study sessions on Paul’s letter to the Colossians may remember that that church also had problems with false teachers. Most of Peter’s second epistle deals with the same problem. The church in Rome that Paul founded also suffered in the same way, something that prompted Paul to warn them when he said in Romans 16:17, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” He also warned his protégé Timothy to be cautious when he wrote to him and said, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). I think those particular verses apply to far too many people today.
This was the battle that the true believers were having in Corinth and it is a battle that is still happening today. There have been a number of evangelists operating in America in recent years who seem to have spent most of their time accumulating wealth and preaching a distorted gospel. The various cults that have sprung up over the last 100 years or so preach a gospel that sounds plausible and close to the real thing but is anything but. There is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. That is what Paul preached and as he said quite forcibly in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified”. Anything less than that may be regarded as false teaching; and it is against that background that Paul wrote these letters to the church in Corinth.
This letter that we know as 2 Corinthians is probably the most personal of all the letters that Paul wrote mainly because he really opened himself up to the Corinthians in a way that he didn’t do anywhere else. There are sound reasons why he did that and I hope to talk about them as we progress through this remarkable letter. He had to deal with a number of important issues including the problem of false teachers, why he changed his mind about visiting them, the collection for Jerusalem and his own authority and credibility as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. We’ll consider those issues as we move through the letter.
The Apostle Paul was a great worker for Jesus Christ. He worked hard and preached passionately even when he came up against opposition and difficulties. He also suffered for his Saviour. Having visited Corinth and stayed there for 18 months Paul developed a great love for and affinity with the Corinthians hence the frequent exchange of letters between him and the church. In writing those letters he was dealing with issues that were important to the Corinthians and which are still important 2000 years later.
As we read through this letter we will see a different Paul, a vulnerable Paul and a Paul who suffered greatly. I hope you enjoy it when we get into 2 Corinthians next week.